3-24-19 Huge fossil discovery made in China's Hubei province
Scientists say they have discovered a "stunning" trove of thousands of fossils on a river bank in China. The fossils are estimated to be about 518 million years old, and are particularly unusual because the soft body tissue of many creatures, including their skin, eyes, and internal organs, have been "exquisitely" well preserved. Palaeontologists have called the findings "mind-blowing" - especially because more than half the fossils are previously undiscovered species. The fossils, known as the Qingjiang biota, were collected near Danshui river in Hubei province. More than 20,000 specimens were collected, and a total of 4,351 have been analysed so far, including worms, jellyfish, sea anemones and algae. They will become a "very important source in the study of the early origins of creatures", one of the fieldwork leaders, Prof Xingliang Zhang from China's Northwest University, told the BBC. The discovery is particularly remarkable because "the majority of creatures are soft-bodied organisms like jellyfish and worms that normally stand no chance of becoming fossilised", Prof Robert Gaines, a geologist who also took part in the study, said in an email to the BBC. The majority of fossils tend to be of hard-bodied animals, as harder substances, like bones, are less likely to rot and decompose. The Qingjiang biota must have been "rapidly buried in sediment" due to a storm, in order for soft tissues to be so well preserved, Prof Zhang says. Scientists are especially excited by the jellyfish and sea anemone fossils, which Prof Gaines describes as "unlike anything I have ever seen. Their sheer abundance and their diversity of forms is stunning". "For the first time we're seeing preservation of jellyfish - [when] you think of jellyfish today, they're so soft-bodied, so delicate, but they're preserved unbelievably well at this site."
3-22-19 It’s not just reality TV - all media must help to prevent suicides
Coverage of high-profile deaths such as Love Island contestant Mike Thalassitis often falls short – we can and must do better, says psychologist Rory O’Connor. The apparent suicide last week of Mike Thalassitis, a former contestant on the UK reality TV show Love Island, has once again thrust into the spotlight what we can do to protect vulnerable individuals. Any such death is one too many. It is encouraging to see ITV, Love Island’s broadcaster, committing itself to providing access to psychological support before, during and after contestants appear on the show. Other broadcasters and production companies must make the same commitments. I also welcome UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s intervention, highlighting that reality TV shows have a duty of care for contestants. As someone who has been researching suicide for more than 20 years, the stark reality is that although we have made significant advances in understanding suicide, our ability to predict it is no better than chance. In part, this is because suicide is statistically a rare event. In the UK, for example, of every 100,000 people, 10 will die by their own hand in a given year. The difficulty is in trying to identify those people, but also identify when they are suicidal. The near-impossibility of this task is why keeping people safe, and mitigating suicide risk when people are vulnerable, is vital. This means a duty of care not just for producers of reality TV shows, but the wider news media. We know that coverage of high-profile suicides can increase the risk of suicidal behaviour. But too often, that coverage fails to highlight the complexity of the contributing factors. Suicide rarely has a single cause. It is generally the product of a complex set of circumstances, often beginning with early life trauma, later mental health problems, fear of failure and a belief that loved ones would be better off if they were dead.
3-22-19 Women have a new weapon against postpartum depression, but it’s costly
The newly approved drug brexanolone simulates a natural steroid to alleviate symptoms. Approval of the first and only treatment in the United States specifically targeting postpartum depression offers hope for millions of women each year who suffer from the debilitating mental health disorder after giving birth. The new drug brexanolone — marketed under the name Zulresso and approved on March 19 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — is expected to become available to the public in late June. Developed by Sage Therapeutics, based in Cambridge, Mass., the drug is costly and treatment is intensive: It’s administered in the hospital as a 60-hour intravenous drip, and a treatment runs between $20,000 and $35,000. But researchers say that it could help many of the estimated 11.5 percent of U.S. new moms each year who experience postpartum depression, which can interfere with normal bonding between mothers and infants and lead to feeling hopeless, sad or overly anxious. Here’s a closer look at the drug, its benefits and some potential drawbacks. How exactly brexanolone works is not known. But because the drug’s chemical structure is nearly identical to the natural hormone allopregnanolone, it’s thought that brexanolone operates in a similar way. Allopregnanolone enhances the effects of a neurochemical called gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, which stops nerve cells in the brain from firing. Ultimately this action helps quell a person’s anxiety or stress. During pregnancy, the concentration of allopregnanolone in a woman’s brain spikes. This leads some neurons to compensate by temporarily tuning out GABA so that the nerve cells don’t become too inactive. Levels of the steroid typically return to normal quickly after a baby is born, and the neurons once again responding to GABA shortly thereafter. But for some women, this process can take longer, possibly resulting in postpartum depression.
3-22-19 U.S. fentanyl deaths are rising fastest among African Americans
Whites still have the highest death rate. Since people in the United States began dying in the fentanyl-related drug overdose epidemic, whites have been hit the hardest. But new data released March 21 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that African Americans and Hispanics are catching up. Non-Hispanic whites still experience the majority of deaths involving fentanyl, a synthetic opioid. But among African Americans and Hispanics, death rates rose faster from 2011 to 2016. Whites experienced a 61 percent annual increase, on average, while the rate rose 140.6 percent annually for blacks and 118.3 percent per year for Hispanics. No reliable data were available for other racial groups. Overall, the number of U.S. fentanyl-related deaths in 2011 and 2012 hovered just above 1,600. A sharp increase began in 2013, reaching 18,335 deaths in 2016. That’s up from 0.5 deaths per 100,000 people in 2011 to 5.9 per 100,000 in 2016. In the first three years of the study, men and women died from fentanyl-related overdoses at similar rates, around 0.5 per 100,000. In 2013, those paths diverged, and by 2016, the death rate among men was 8.6 per 100,000; for women it was 3.1 per 100,000. Overdose death rates rose most sharply along the East Coast, including New England and the mid-Atlantic, and in the Great Lakes regions. One of the most powerful opioids, fentanyl has been around for decades and is still prescribed to fight pain. But it has emerged as a street drug that is cheap to make and is found mixed into other drugs. In 2013, fentanyl was the ninth most common drug involved in overdose deaths, according to the CDC report; in 2016, it was number one. Just a little bit can do a lot of damage: The drug can quickly kill a person by overwhelming several systems in the body (SN: 9/3/2016, p. 14).
3-22-19 Vaping: The FDA’s controversial crackdown
“The great final battle over your Juul has begun,” said Catie Keck in Gizmodo.com. Last week, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb proposed new regulations for U.S. e-cigarette sales, a market that Juul dominates with 70 percent of all sales. Gottlieb says he isn’t targeting the nearly 11 million American adults who vape—many as a healthier alternative to smoking cigarettes—but the 3.6 million teens caught up in the craze, partly because of the bubble gum, cotton candy, and gummy bear flavors vape makers introduced to entice them. The FDA proposals—now in a 30-day comment period—would segregate such teen-friendly products to adults-only smoke shops and age-restricted areas in general retailers (like the X-rated areas of old video rental stores). Gottlieb also said online retailers must tighten up their age-verification procedures and curb bulk sales—or risk FDA enforcement actions. “These regulations are a start,” said Danielle Ramo in the San Francisco Chronicle, but “we need to go further to prevent Big Vaping from marketing and selling its products to kids.” In recent years, e-cigarettes flavored like candy have “torn to shreds” years of work convincing American youth that smoking is both unhealthy and gross. Vaping has made what “used to be uncool suddenly cool again.” Make no mistake: These products are a menace, hooking teens on nicotine, exposing them to carcinogens in vape fluid, and raising their risk of heart attacks and stroke. What the FDA really needs to do is “destroy the myth that vaping is safe,” ban vaping ads from social media, and raise the legal age for all nicotine products to 21.
3-22-19 Secondhand smoke and kidneys
Being exposed to secondhand smoke can significantly increase your risk of developing chronic kidney disease, a new study suggests. Researchers in South Korea examined a group of 131,196 nonsmokers. The subjects’ average age was 53, and three-quarters of them were women. They were split into three subgroups: those exposed to secondhand smoke for three or more days a week; those exposed on fewer than three days a week; and those not exposed at all. After controlling for other factors—including age, sex, and body mass index—the researchers found that the two groups exposed to secondhand smoke had a 44 percent higher incidence of kidney disease than participants with no exposure. When scientists followed up with the participants nine years later, the risk of developing kidney disease was 58 percent higher among those exposed up to three times a week, and 62 percent higher for those with even more exposure. “I’m not trying to scare people,” lead author Jung Tak Park, from Yonsei University in Seoul, tells The New York Times. “But kidney disease is a nonreversible condition—you can’t get it fixed when renal function fails.”
3-22-19 An eye test for Alzheimer’s
A retina scan may be able to identify Alzheimer’s years before symptoms appear, new research suggests. Diagnosing the neurodegenerative condition currently requires a costly brain scan, a spinal tap, or a doctor’s assessment, and diagnoses generally come too late for patients to make lifestyle changes or take medication that might slow the onset of the disease. But researchers at Duke Eye Center in North Carolina believe that changes in the retina, which is an extension of the brain, could serve as an early-warning system for the disease. Using an imaging technique called optical coherence tomography angiography, they studied the retinas of 39 Alzheimer’s patients, 37 people with mild cognitive impairment, and 133 cognitively healthy people. They found that a network of retinal blood vessels was markedly less dense in the Alzheimer’s patients than the other groups, and that a specific layer of their retina was notably thinner. The researchers suspect that proteins linked to Alzheimer’s may block the protein that encourages these blood vessels to grow. Study author Sharon Fekrat tells The Daily Telegraph (U.K.) that it will be years before the test “goes into prime time.” But she adds that if researchers could detect blood vessel changes before a decline in cognition, it “would be a game changer.”
Twentysomethings, after British neuroscientists said brain studies show that people don’t fully grow up until they’re in their 30s. The idea that adulthood begins at 18 or 21, said Peter Jones of Cambridge University, “looks increasingly absurd.”. (Webmaster's comment: Previous studies have shown that the brain doesn't stop growing until the age of 26.)
3-22-19 Resurrecting the mammoth
In what they say is a “significant step” toward bringing the woolly mammoth back to life, Japanese scientists have successfully awakened cells from a 28,000-year-old mammoth carcass. Researchers extracted 88 nucleus-like structures from the remains of a well-preserved specimen found in the Siberian permafrost in 2010. Those structures were then injected into mouse oocytes, cells that can develop into an ovum. Signs of biological activity were spotted in the oocytes, including reactions that can occur just before cell division. But study co-author Kei Miyamoto, from Kindai University in Osaka, tells Agence France-Presse that the long-dead beast’s nuclei were ultimately too badly damaged for cell division to actually occur and that the team is “very far from re-creating a mammoth.” Still, Miyamoto says, the research suggests it might one day be possible to resurrect woolly mammoths—which last walked the Earth 4,000 years ago—using ancient cell samples. “Despite the years that have passed,” he says, “cell activity can still happen and parts of it can be re-created.” (Webmaster's comment: Maybe we can bring back some facsimile of a mammoth, but without the society it came from it will only be a remote likeness. Wildlife does not exist in a vaccuum!)
3-22-19 The oldest known astrolabe was used on one of Vasco da Gama’s ships
The navigational device dates back to as early as 1496. While searching for shipwreck remains near Oman in the Arabian Sea in 2014, divers discovered an unusual metal disk that has since proven to be the world’s oldest known mariner’s astrolabe, British researchers report. The navigational device came from the wreckage of a ship in the Portuguese armada that had been part of explorer Vasco da Gama’s second voyage to India from 1502 to 1503. Historical decorations on the artifact led the researchers to suggest that the disk was used as early as 1496. A bit wider than a dollar bill, the astrolabe contains carvings of Portugal’s royal coat of arms and a depiction of a ringed Earth that was associated with a Portuguese king who ruled from late 1495 to 1521. Laser imaging of the disk revealed 18 scale marks separated at 5-degree intervals. The device, used to take altitudes at sea, could have measured from 0 degrees — when the sun is at the horizon — to 90 degrees — when the sun is directly overhead, the team reports in a study published online March 16 in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. Only one other solid disk, mariner’s astrolabe has been found, and its authenticity and age are uncertain, say oceanographer David Mearns and colleagues. Mearns directs Blue Water Recoveries in Midhurst, England, a company that locates and studies shipwrecks.
3-22-19 'Baby Grady' gives fertility hope to boys with cancer
Scientists say they have made a significant leap towards helping boys with cancer stay fertile, thanks to a baby monkey called Grady. Cancer treatment can damage a boy's undeveloped testes and leaves a third of survivors infertile in adulthood. Baby Grady is the first primate born using frozen samples of testicles taken before her dad started puberty. Experts said the technique, detailed in the journal Science, could soon be used in the clinic. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy can destroy someone's ability to have children. Women and girls can have eggs or ovaries frozen in order to have children after their cancer therapy is over. Adult men can have a sperm sample frozen, but this is not an option for boys who have not gone through puberty. Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development started with five male rhesus macaques. The animals had not started puberty so their testes were not yet sperm-making factories. Then the researchers removed a testicle from each monkey, cut it up into small pieces and put the fragments on ice to cryopreserve them. Around half a year later the monkeys were made infertile. Then fragments of their preserved testes were thawed and were grafted underneath the monkey's skin. As the animals went through puberty, the testicular tissue matured and grew; when scientists looked inside "we found that there were sperm", said Prof Kyle Orwig, from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. This sperm was used to fertilise an egg and baby girl Grady was the result.
3-21-19 Saving monkey testicle tissue before puberty hints at a new way to preserve fertility
The results give hope to one day helping young male cancer patients. A technique with the potential to preserve fertility for prepubescent boys stricken with cancer has passed a key test in experiments conducted in monkeys: the birth of a healthy infant. Testicle tissue samples from rhesus macaques that hadn’t reached puberty were removed, frozen and then grafted back onto the monkeys. Over the following year, as the monkeys went through puberty, the immature sperm cells in the grafts developed into sperm. In vitro fertilization with sperm from one monkey led to a successful pregnancy and the birth of a baby female macaque named Grady, researchers report in the March 22 Science. The work is an encouraging step toward one day being able to preserve the fertility of prepubescent boys who undergo chemotherapy and radiation for cancer, which can affect their ability to produce sperm, says Robert Brannigan, a reproductive urologist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago who was not involved in the study. Cancer survival rates for children in the United States have reached about 80 percent. But unlike teens or adults, younger boys haven’t yet developed sperm they can freeze for future use. The new work provides “a potential pathway to solving this very real clinical problem,” Brannigan says.
3-20-19 Strange rise of mukbang parents who feed their kids fast food for cash
Videos in which people film themselves eating food and post it on YouTube have become hugely popular. Now this weird trend is spreading to kids, should we be worried? LIKE many 2-year-olds, the youngest member of the Candoo family loves fast food. Unlike most 2-year-olds, her parents earn money whenever she eats it. For over half her life, she has been delighting her family’s 370,000 fans by eating in front of a camera. More than 4 million people have watched a video of her enjoying chicken nuggets and fries, while nearly 3 million have viewed her 6-year-old brother devouring a burger. The Candoos are a family of YouTubers. Parents Katherine and Andrew broadcast themselves and their five children eating fried chicken, tacos, burgers, instant noodles and pizza on their channel Eating with the Candoos. The US family, and others like them, earn money from adverts that play before their videos and take direct sponsorship from companies, most recently a video for food subscription service HelloFresh. Overall, it is pretty simple: they eat, they film themselves, they make money. But why are their videos so popular? And is there a physical and psychological toll on their children? Originating in South Korea in 2009, a mukbang – Korean for “eating broadcast” – is a video of someone eating large quantities of food. Its pioneers were adults. By 2015, some of the most popular South Korean mukbang creators were reported to earn up to $10,000 a month live-streaming themselves. Academics began theorising about why people enjoy the videos: a study by Hye Jin Kim at Chosun University in South Korea posited that they relieve stress. In 2016, US journalist and cultural commentator Jeff Yang claimed the videos enabled lonely, unmarried South Koreans to simulate social eating.
3-21-19 Newfound fossils in China highlight a dizzying diversity of Cambrian life
Half of these amazingly well-preserved kinds of creatures have never been seen before. Along the banks of China’s Danshui River lies a treasure trove of fossils that may rival the most famous Cambrian fossil assemblage of all, Canada’s Burgess Shale. The roughly 518-million-year-old site contains a dizzying abundance of beautifully preserved weird and wonderful life-forms, from jellyfish and comb jellies to arthropods and algae. So far, researchers led by paleontologist Dongjing Fu of Northwest University in Xian, China, have collected 4,351 specimens at the new site, representing 101 different taxa, or groups of organisms. Of those taxa, about 53 percent have never before been observed, Fu and her colleagues report in the March 22 Science — not even at other well-known Cambrian fossil sites such as the 508-million-year-old Burgess Shale or a 518-million-year-old site known as Chengjiang, also in China. “It’s an exciting discovery,” says Jean-Bernard Caron, a paleontologist at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto who wasn’t involved in the study. During the Cambrian Period, which began about 542 million years ago, life diversified extremely rapidly. So many new forms appeared in such a relatively short period of time that this diversification is known as the Cambrian explosion. The find “shows that there’s hope for new discoveries” of other Cambrian fossil sites, he says.
3-21-19 A new ketamine-based antidepressant raises hope — and questions
The anesthetic drug’s long-term effects on people aren’t clear. With great fanfare, a new antidepressant entered the U.S. market in March, the first fundamentally new medicine for depression in decades. Based on the anesthetic ketamine, the drug — called Spravato — is intended to help people with severe depression quickly, taking effect within hours or days instead of the weeks that typical antidepressants take. But for all the hubbub, big questions have gone unanswered about the drug, developed by Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc. Some psychiatrists are concerned that the drug was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration based on skimpy data, under standards that were less rigorous than those required for previous antidepressants. It remains unclear, for example, what happens as someone stops taking the drug, as well as whether it has long-term effects. The data on Spravato raise more questions than they answer, says psychiatrist Alan Schatzberg of Stanford University. “And I think that’s unfortunate.” Despite those unknowns, some psychiatrists are relieved to have another drug to try, particularly for people with depression so severe that other drugs have failed to help. Spravato “does something that very few things in psychiatry can do — it works for people who didn’t respond to other treatments, and it works fast,” says psychiatrist Dan Iosifescu of New York University’s School of Medicine. “I really welcome having another powerful tool in my toolbox.”
3-21-19 Sun bears copy each other's facial expressions to communicate
The world’s smallest bears copy one another’s facial expressions as a means of communication. A team at the University of Portsmouth, UK, studied 22 sun bears at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Malaysia. In total, 21 matched the open-mouthed expressions of their playmates during face-to-face interactions. When they were facing each other, 13 bears made the expressions within 1 second of observing a similar expression from their playmate. “Mimicking the facial expressions of others in exact ways is one of the pillars of human communication,” says Marina Davila-Ross, who was part of the team. “Other primates and dogs are known to mimic each other, but only great apes and humans were previously known to show such complexity in their facial mimicry.” Sun bears have no special evolutionary link to humans, unlike monkeys or apes, nor are they domesticated animals like dogs. The team believes this means the behaviour must also be present in various other species. Also known as honey bears, sun bears are the smallest members of the bear family. They grow to between 120 centimetres and 150 centimetres long and weigh up to 80 kilograms. The species is endangered and lives in the tropical forests of South-East Asia. While the bears prefer a solitary life, the team says that they engage in gentle and rough play and may use facial mimicry to indicate they are ready to play more roughly or strengthen social bonds. “It is widely believed that we only find complex forms of communication in species with complex social systems,” says Derry Taylor, also on the team. “As sun bears are a largely solitary species, our study of their facial communication questions this belief, because it shows a complex form of facial communication that until now was known only in more social species.”
3-20-19 Anaesthesia drug may make it easier to forget upsetting memories
A drug used for anaesthesia can make upsetting memories less vivid and may one day be used to help some people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Bryan Strange at the Technical University of Madrid in Spain and his colleagues found that when volunteers received an injection of the sedative propofol immediately after recalling a story, they remembered the story’s distressing elements less well 24 hours later. Studies in animals have suggested that, when we retrieve a memory, there is a short window afterwards in which it is possible to modify that memory. To see if drugs may affect this, the team asked 50 volunteers to memorise two stories a week before they were due to be deeply sedated for a gastroscopy or colonoscopy. The participants learned the stories from slide shows that began and ended neutrally, but had upsetting content in the middle. One story was about a boy involved in a traffic accident, while the other was about the kidnapping and assault of a young woman. Immediately before being sedated for their medical procedure, each volunteer was shown the first slide of one of the stories and asked several questions to “reactivate” their memory of the tale. Straight after the procedure, half the participants were tested on how well they recollected the stories. Strange believes this is too soon for the memory to have been changed by the drug. The results also suggest this might be the case, because these volunteers remembered both stories equally well. The rest of the volunteers were tested 24 hours after their procedures. Propofol did seem to have an effect: these participants were 12 per cent worse on average at remembering the emotional parts of the reactivated story compared with the non-reactivated one. They remembered the emotionally neutral parts of both stories equally well.
3-20-19 I got caught in the middle of a bitter row over humans' violent past
A simmering feud between geneticists and archaeologists has finally exploded. This turf war is unwise and unscientific, says Michael Marshall. Once upon a time, the narrative of humanity’s past belonged largely to archaeologists and anthropologists. In recent years, geneticists have muscled in, making startling discoveries by analysing DNA from ancient specimens – and leaving some archaeologists feeling sidelined. A new study has thrown the feud into stark relief. Geneticist David Reich of Harvard Medical School and his colleagues have studied DNA from 271 individuals who lived in and around what is now Spain over the past 7000 years. Some 4500 years ago, people called the Yamnaya arrived from eastern Europe. Dramatically, the local males stopped passing on their genes: their Y chromosomes were almost entirely replaced by those of the newcomers. “That means males coming in had preferential access to local females, again and again and again,” said Reich, describing these findings at New Scientist Live in London, last September. “The collision of these two populations was not a friendly one.” I wrote about these findings for New Scientist, noting that the event resembled “a violent conquest” in which the new society was “firmly under the control of the males”. When this was repeated in the Spanish newspaper El País, it elicited a furious letter of protest from dozens of archaeologists including Felipe Criado-Boado from the Spanish National Research Council. They described the narrative as “unfounded” because there was no evidence of violence. So who is right? This is relatively recent history in a region that archaeologists have studied for decades. If there were evidence of violence, surely they would have found some. However, the DNA analysis reveals that local men didn’t pass on their genes, suggesting they were prevented from having sex.
3-20-19 Gaia rebooted: New version of idea explains how Earth evolved for life
The controversial Gaia hypothesis sees Earth as a superorganism adapted to be perfect for life. A weird type of evolution may finally show how that actually happens. IN 1948, cybernetics pioneer Ross Ashby built a curious machine. The Homeostat was constructed from four interconnected bomb-control units scavenged from the UK’s Royal Air Force. It featured four pivoting magnets, the position of each being determined by that of the others and guided by feedback mechanisms generated using a table of random settings. When Ashby turned the machine on, the magnets would start to oscillate wildly. Sometimes they would return to a stable equilibrium position. If not, Ashby had wired the Homeostat to reboot itself with a new selection of random settings. Over time, this basic algorithm – if unstable, try again – always eventually led to equilibrium. That was the machine’s sole purpose: to show that a simple, dynamic system would regain stability in response to changes in its environment. Ashby believed this “ultrastability” to be a governing principle in nature, explaining, among other things, the adaptation of species to their niche – a process that appears purposeful, but actually arises from random processes. It may seem a stretch to describe the Homeostat’s change over time, from wild motion to stability, as “evolution”. After all, it lacks all the trappings we associate with Darwinian evolution – such as life and reproduction. Yet, there is a growing belief that the same forces driving Ashby’s machine hold the key to a wider concept of evolution, one that can encompass semi-living and even nonliving systems. This new view may prove essential to understanding the functioning of ecosystems and even the origin of life. Most intriguingly, it bolsters the Gaia hypothesis, the controversial idea that the biosphere acts like a giant organism, one that self-regulates to keep conditions just right for life. Darwin’s original formula for evolution by natural selection works as follows: organisms vary, those with more favourable traits leave more offspring on average and these offspring are likely to inherit their parents’ favourable traits. This explains why organisms are well adapted to their environments – why seed-eating birds have thick, strong bills, why flowers produce sugar-rich nectar to attract pollinators, and countless other traits. As our evolutionary thinking has developed, natural selection has proved remarkably adaptable. It can explain the evolution of “selfish genes” – an idea popularised by biologist Richard Dawkins in the 1970s – because, like individuals of the same species, a gene may exist in various forms, some of which are more likely to survive and be passed on to future generations. Under the right circumstances, natural selection can even extend to discrete groups of organisms, as when more cooperative populations do better against less collaborative ones. However, this Darwinian dynamic breaks down at the level of Gaia, the whole planet. As far as we know, Earth is a one-off: there is no population of competing, reproducing planets for natural selection to choose between to form the next generation. And yet, like a superorganism honed by evolution, Earth seems to self-regulate in ways that are essential for life. Oxygen levels have remained relatively constant for hundreds of millions of years, as has the availability of key building blocks of life such as carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus. Crucially, Earth’s surface temperature has remained within the narrow range that allows liquid water to exist. It is true there have been upheavals: during a “snowball Earth” episode about 700 million years ago, for example, almost the entire surface was frozen. “But the key question is, why does it spend so much time in a stable state and not just flying all over the place?” asks Tim Lenton at the University of Exeter, UK.
3-20-19 Lawsuit as unvaccinated teen banned by US school in outbreak
An unvaccinated Kentucky teenager is suing after his Catholic school excluded him amid a chickenpox outbreak that has sickened at least 32 pupils. Jerome Kunkel, 18, has not contracted the virus, but he has been banned by Our Lady of the Sacred Heart/Assumption Academy in Walton. His lawsuit argues the vaccine is "immoral, illegal and sinful" and his rights have been violated. The Northern Kentucky Health Department banned unvaccinated pupils on 14 March. The notification said that due to the outbreak of chickenpox, students who have not been vaccinated or are already immune to the infection must stay home "until 21 days after the onset of rash for the last ill student or staff member". The statement, which also banned all extracurricular activities, said it came "in direct response to a public health threat and was an appropriate and necessary response to prevent further spread of this contagious illness". Jerome Kunkel's father, Bill Kunkel, said the vaccines were derived from aborted foetuses, which goes against his family's religious beliefs. "I don't believe in that vaccine at all and they're trying to push it on us," he told WLWT-News. Some viruses used to make vaccines are grown with cells descended from matter that was sourced from two human foetuses electively aborted in the 1960s. But no new human cells have been used since then to produce vaccines, according to health authorities and drug manufacturers. The Catholic Church has told its members it is morally justifiable to use these vaccines, though it wants alternative treatments developed without "using cell lines of illicit origin". (Webmaster's comment: Being UNVACCINATED is "immoral, illegal and sinful"! It endangers us all. We should lock him up!)
3-20-19 San Francisco moves to ban e-cigarettes until health effects known
Officials in San Francisco have proposed a new law to ban e-cigarette sales until their health effects are evaluated by the US government. The law appears to be the first of its kind in the US and seeks to curb a rising usage by young people. Critics, however, say it will make it harder for people to kick addiction. A second city law would bar making, selling or distributing tobacco on city property and is aimed at an e-cigarette firm renting on Pier 70. Last week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) - the national regulator - released its proposed guidelines, giving companies until 2021 to apply to have their e-cigarette products evaluated. A deadline had initially been set for August 2018, but the agency later said more preparation time was needed. San Francisco city attorney Dennis Herrera, one of the co-authors of the bill, which is yet to be approved, said reviews should have been done before they were sold. "These companies may hide behind the veneer of harm reduction, but let's be clear, their product is addiction," said Mr Herrera. He added that San Francisco, Chicago and New York had sent a joint letter to the FDA calling on it to investigate the effects of e-cigarettes on public health. Anti-vaping activists say companies are deliberately targeting young people by offering flavoured products. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of US teenagers who admitted using tobacco products "within the last 30 days" rose 36% between 2017 and 2018 - from 3.6m to 4.9m. It attributes this to a growth in e-cigarette use. Last year San Francisco became the first US city to ban flavoured tobacco and vaping liquids, and already prevents smokeless tobacco from being used on playing fields.
3-20-19 Weedkiller glyphosate a 'substantial' cancer factor
A US jury has found that one of the world's most widely-used weedkillers was a "substantial factor" in causing a man's cancer. Pharmaceutical group Bayer had strongly rejected claims that its glyphosate-based Roundup product was carcinogenic. But the jury in San Francisco ruled unanimously that it contributed to causing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in California resident Edwin Hardeman. The next stage of the trial will consider Bayer's liability and damages. During this phase, which starts on Wednesday, Mr Hardeman's lawyers are expected to present evidence allegedly showing Bayer's efforts to influence scientists, regulators and the public about the safety of its products. In morning trading, Bayer's shares immediately plunged, dropping almost 12% to €61.62. The German company, which acquired Roundup as part of its $66bn takeover of US rival Monsanto, said it was disappointed with the jury's initial decision. "We are confident the evidence in phase two will show that Monsanto's conduct has been appropriate and the company should not be liable for Mr. Hardeman's cancer," the company said. Bayer continues "to believe firmly that science confirms that glyphosate-based herbicides do not cause cancer". The case was only the second of some 11,200 Roundup lawsuits to go to trial in the US. Another California man was awarded $289m in August after a state court jury found Roundup caused his cancer, sending Bayer shares plunging at the time. That award was later reduced to $78m and is on appeal. (Webmaster's comment: Roundup is a killer and it kills us too!)
3-20-19 Genetic risk scores could help the NHS but they aren't ready yet
An analysis of the genetic data of millions of people can help predict their risk of developing common diseases and could help the UK’s National Health Service save lives and money, a firm spun out of the University of Oxford has claimed. Genomics plc says it has produced polygenic risk scores for heart disease, breast cancer and 14 other diseases by examining more than 3 million people’s genetic data. Half a million genomes came from the UK Biobank, while the rest were from more than 200 other institutions. Such scores could help the NHS take preventative action and target scarce resources better, says co-founder Peter Donnelly. For example, women whose genes indicate they have a higher risk of breast cancer could be screened earlier than their 50th birthday, when checks usually start. Health secretary Matthew Hancock said today that polygenic testing suggested he had a heightened rise of prostate cancer, and he is due to give a speech later on increasing the use of such techniques in the UK. “We must get predictive testing into the NHS as soon as we possibly can,” Hancock will say. But can polygenic scores really help the health service? Genetic testing is already used in the NHS to look for rare diseases caused by a single gene, such as the brain disorder Huntington’s disease. Polygenic testing aims to predict the risk of more common diseases, such as coronary heart disease, which can be made more likely by hundreds of different genes. Making such predictions used to be impossible, because each of the genes has a small influence on the risk of developing a disease. But analysing huge genetic databases makes it feasible to tease out these effects. “This is a totally different use of genetics in healthcare,” says Donnelly. “I’m convinced this is where genetics will have its biggest impact.”
3-20-19 Dig planned at rare 'Neolithic mortuary' in Aberdeenshire
Archaeologists hope to carry out a fresh dig at what they believe could be the site of a 5,500-year-old "mortuary" in Aberdeenshire. The Neolithic enclosure in what is now Aden Country Park may have been used for excarnation, the removal of flesh leaving only bones for burial. This sometimes involved leaving bodies outdoors for scavenging animals. Remains of an enclosure marked by wooden posts and living trees were first found in a dig in November 2018. Archaeologists said this "exciting, extremely rare discovery" had resulted in the need to carry out a further excavation. They hope to uncover more of the history of the site and confirm the layout of the possible Neolithic structure. The Friends of Aden has started a crowdfunding campaign to help raise £1,000 towards the cost of the new dig and associated activities between 24 June and 7 July. Volunteers from the local schools, groups and wider community could be involved in the excavation. Archaeologist Ali Cameron, who has been commissioned by Aberdeenshire Council to lead on archaeology aspects of the project, said last year's dig revealed a larger structure than had been anticipated. She said: "It is an intriguing enclosure with both posts and living trees and must have been very prominent in the landscape.
3-20-19 Why I believe humans were in Australia 120,000 years ago
DID humans live in Australia 60,000 years earlier than we thought? Newly discovered shells and blackened stones suggest so, according to James Bowler at the University of Melbourne. In 1974, Bowler discovered the roughly 40,000-year-old Mungo Lady and Mungo Man, the oldest human remains ever found in Australia. Subsequent genetic evidence and human artefacts have since placed the arrival of humans in Australia at 60,000 years ago. But in six new papers, Bowler and his colleagues have described what they believe to be two hearth-like areas of blackened sand, charcoal and darkened stones in south-west Victoria, dating back to 120,000 years ago (Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria, doi.org/c3mz). Why do you think humans could be responsible for what you have discovered? There is an accumulation of shells of edible sea animals. Birds could be one explanation, but there is a big abalone and seabirds today don’t carry abalone shells around. The dominant line of evidence is the extensive use of fire. We found lots of blackened stones, which originally started as pale limestone, and they are blackened as the result of intensive heat. Could this have been caused by wildfires or lightning? There are no plants there: no root channels and no remnants of any vegetation growing there. The burnt stones are lying on top of bare rock, which means the fuel for the fire had to be imported. How do we know the site is 120,000 years old? There are three lines of evidence, including geological evidence of sea level, all independently providing the same age. People will not argue about the age, they will argue about whether it is people or whether it is nature. There are no stone tools – though there are no hard rocks in that area suitable for making tools, so that’s not surprising. There are no bones and no human remains. It is a frustrating conclusion to 11 years of work, but I’m convinced that continuing research will find definitive evidence.
3-20-19 In a first, a fossilized egg is found preserved inside an ancient bird
The offspring may have been the cause of its mother’s demise, scientists suspect. About 110 million years ago, a sparrow-sized bird died with her egg still inside her body. That egg, crushed and flattened by pressure over time, is the first unlaid bird egg known to be preserved in a fossil, researchers report March 20 in Nature Communications. The fossil was unearthed 11 years ago in northwestern China. In 2018, paleontologists led by Alida Bailleul of the Key Laboratory of Vertebrate Evolution and Human Origins in Beijing took a closer look, and noticed something odd: The bird had a strange sheet of tissue between her pubic bones. Examining a piece of the tissue under a microscope, Bailleul found that it was from an egg. The bird, a newly identified species, was named Avimaia schweitzerae in honor of paleontologist Mary Schweitzer’s work on fossilized soft tissues (SN: 12/24/16, p. 15). Further analyses revealed more surprises. The mother bird’s skeleton contains traces of medullary bone, a calcium-bearing tissue that aids in eggshell formation (SN: 4/16/16, p. 16). It’s the strongest evidence yet that ancient birds produced this tissue during reproduction. And the egg’s cuticle, the outermost layer of shell, contains tiny mineral spheres similar to spheres in the egg cuticles of modern waterfowl such as quails and ducks. The spheres, thought to protect embryos from microbial infections, have never before been seen in any fossilized eggs. But all was not well with this bird and her embryo. The eggshell has two layers instead of the usual one, suggesting that the egg had remained too long in the abdomen. And the egg’s layers are extremely thin, thinner than a sheet of paper. In modern birds, particularly small birds experiencing extreme stress, these symptoms can indicate a deadly condition known as egg-binding, in which a bird is unable to lay the egg. In fact, the researchers suggest, the unlaid egg may have ultimately killed the mother.
3-19-19 The learning gap between rich and poor students hasn’t changed in decades
Lowest income students’ learning level is up to four years behind the highest income students. The average performance of the lowest income students in the United States lags about three to four years behind that of the highest income students — an achievement gap that has remained constant for more than four decades, a new study finds. An analysis of standardized tests given to more than 2.7 million middle and high school students over almost 50 years suggests that federal education programs aimed at closing that gap are falling short, researchers report March 17 in the National Bureau of Economic Research. Lower achievement in high school leads to lower earning potential throughout adulthood, says coauthor Eric Hanushek, education economist at Stanford University. “The next generation is going to look a lot like this generation. Kids from poor families will become poor themselves.” Whether the problem is worsening, however, is up for debate. A widely cited 2011 study, also out of Stanford, showed the achievement gap widening between children born in the mid-1970s and those born in the early 2000s. But Hanushek says his work suggests the gap is holding steady, but isn’t worsening, as previously believed.
3-19-19 Spread of cancers halted by smart bacteria that trigger immune attack
GENETICALLY modified “smart” bacteria injected into tumours can shrink growths and trigger an immune response that stops cancer spreading, tests in animals show. The engineered bacteria exploit the vulnerability of solid tumours to infections. This vulnerability comes about because tumours evolve all kinds of tricks for evading immune system attack, from physically keeping out immune cells to releasing chemicals that tell the cells not to attack. But this leaves tumours open to infection by bacteria and viruses that would be rapidly wiped out elsewhere in the body. The smart bacteria, created by Sreyan Chowdhury at Columbia University in New York and his colleagues take advantage of this, infecting a tumour and multiplying. Once the number of bacteria reaches a critical level, they are designed to self-destruct and release an antibody in the heart of the cancerous growth. This antibody then encourages the immune system to attack the tumour. The team started with a harmless strain of E. coli. This was engineered to produce an antibody, which binds to a protein called CD47 found on the surface of some cancer cells, triggering their destruction. However, CD47 is also found on the surface of healthy red blood cells, so injecting high levels of the antibody straight into the blood would be dangerous. By instead injecting the bacteria directly into tumours, high levels of the antibody are produced only where needed. In tests in mice, several kinds of tumours shrank after being injected with the smart bacteria. What’s more, the growth of tumours elsewhere in the body of the mice also slowed, while the chances of cancer spreading to new sites in the body was greatly reduced (bioRxiv, doi.org/c3k5).
3-19-19 Artificial meat: UK scientists growing 'bacon' in labs
British scientists have joined the race to produce meat grown in the lab rather than reared on the hoof. Scientists at the University of Bath have grown animal cells on blades of grass, in a step towards cultured meat. If the process can be reproduced on an industrial scale, meat lovers might one day be tucking into a slaughter-free supply of "bacon". The researchers say the UK can move the field forward through its expertise in medicine and engineering. Lab-based meat products are not yet on sale, though a US company, Just, has said its chicken nuggets, grown from cells taken from the feather of chicken that is still alive, will soon be in a few restaurants. Chemical engineer Dr Marianne Ellis, of the University of Bath, sees cultured meat as "an alternative protein source to feed the world". Cultured pig cells are being grown in her laboratory, which could one day lead to bacon raised entirely off the hoof. In the future, you would take a biopsy from a pig, isolate stem (master) cells, grow more cells, then put them into a bioreactor to massively expand them, says postgraduate student Nick Shorten of Aberystwyth University."And the pig's still alive and happy and you get lots of bacon at the end." To replicate the taste and texture of bacon will take years of research. For structure, the cells must be grown on a scaffold.At Bath, they're experimenting with something that's entirely natural - grass. They're growing rodent cells, which are cheap and easy to use, on scaffolds of grass, as a proof of principle.
3-18-19 Our brains might sense Earth's magnetic field just like birds do
What do birds and bees, worms and wolves, fruit flies and fish all have in common? The answer: a magnetic sense that helps them navigate. Now it seems we might do as well. Joseph Kirschvink at the California Institute of Technology in the US and colleagues found that altering the directions of nearby magnetic fields caused temporary changes in human brain activity. While sitting still in a dark room, participants’ brain activity was recorded using electroencephalography (EEG), while electromagnetic coils were used to create magnetic fields. The experiment mimicked the magnetic field changes we are subject to when we move about in the real world, says Kirschvink. The direction and intensity of Earth’s magnetic field varies by geographical location. For example, at the magnetic north pole, one of two poles where the magnetic field is the strongest, the direction of the field points vertically downwards, into the ground. In the wider northern hemisphere, this vertical angle changes but the magnetic field always points downwards – meaning that when you hold a compass horizontally, the end pointing north is slightly pulled down. The south-pointing end of some compasses in the northern hemisphere are weighted to compensate for the pull. When the team exposed people to a downward-pointing magnetic field, they saw changes in brain wave patterns when they rotated the field in a counter-clockwise direction. But no participants showed brain changes when the magnetic field was rotated clockwise, a finding the researchers cannot explain.
3-18-19 People can sense Earth’s magnetic field, brain waves suggest
A new study hints that humans have magnetoreception abilities, similar to some other animals. A new analysis of people’s brain waves when surrounded by different magnetic fields suggests that people have a “sixth sense” for magnetism. Birds, fish and some other creatures can sense Earth’s magnetic field and use it for navigation (SN: 6/14/14, p. 10). Scientists have long wondered whether humans, too, boast this kind of magnetoreception. Now, by exposing people to an Earth-strength magnetic field pointed in different directions in the lab, researchers from the United States and Japan have discovered distinct brain wave patterns that occur in response to rotating the field in a certain way. These findings, reported in a study published online March 18 in eNeuro, offer evidence that people do subconsciously respond to Earth’s magnetic field — although it’s not yet clear exactly why or how our brains use this information. “The first impression when I read the [study] was like, ‘Wow, I cannot believe it!’” says Can Xie, a biophysicist at Peking University in Beijing. Previous tests of human magnetoreception have yielded inconclusive results. This new evidence “is one step forward for the magnetoreception field and probably a big step for the human magnetic sense,” he says. “I do hope we can see replications and further investigations in the near future.”
3-18-19 Boys and girls may have differing attitudes to risk thanks to society
Men are more likely to engage in riskier behaviours than women, or so the stereotype goes. However, according to a study with children, these differences are far from written in stone, but are shaped by society. To find out how gender may affect risk-taking behaviours, Elaine Liu at the University of Houston in Texas and Sharon Xuejing Zuo at Fudan University in Shanghai studied a small town in south-west China, where children from two ethnic groups — Mosuo and Han — attend school together. These two groups have different traditional gender norms, with women typically heading Mosuo families, whereas men typically take this role in Han families. Liu and Zuo asked 352 children in the town to play a lottery game. The 7 to 12-year-olds had to select one of six lottery tickets, labelled 1 to 6, with the higher the number, the riskier the choice but the bigger the possible reward. For example, ticket 1 was guaranteed to win a small prize, while ticket 6 had a 50 per cent chance of scooping a larger prize. Among the youngest children, Mosuo girls tended to favour riskier choices, compared with Mosuo boys. However, this pattern reversed in older children. For Han boys and girls, boys tended to favour riskier ticket choices than girls, and this didn’t change with age. The results show that Mosuo children are influenced by their Han peers rather than biological factors, says Liu.
3-18-19 Women with a twin brother are more likely to drop out of school
Women who have a non-identical twin brother are more likely to drop out of school or higher education than women who have a twin sister. These outcomes may be related to higher levels of testosterone in the uterus from their sibling. Animal studies have shown that testosterone can transfer between fetuses in the uterus and result in developmental changes. Male fetuses are already exposed to oestrogen from their mother, but female fetuses would experience high levels of testosterone only if they shared a uterus with a brother. Krzysztof Karbownik at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and his colleagues analysed data on births in Norway between 1967 and 1978, which included 13,800 twins out of a total of around 729,000 children born. They included long-term data on the twins’ education and earnings, and found that in each category women who had a male twin scored lower than those who had a female twin. They also had fewer children. The women had a 15.2 per cent higher probability of dropping out of school, a 3.9 per cent lower likelihood of graduating university and had 5.8 per cent fewer children, on average, compared with women who have a female twin. The results didn’t carry over to men – those with twin sisters had similar long-term outcomes as those with twin brothers. These results are consistent with a previous study of historical records in Finland that found similar reductions in fertility rates among women with twin brothers. “They were able to adjust for many other important confounding factors that we had no access to using historical records, such as birth weight and size difference at birth,” says Virpi Lummaa at the University of Turku in Finland, author of that study.
3-18-19 Resurrecting woolly mammoth cells is hard to do
Biological activity seen in an experiment may be more mouse than mammoth, one cloning expert says. Proteins from woolly mammoth cells frozen for 28,000 years in the Siberian tundra may still have some biological activity, claim researchers attempting to clone the extinct behemoths. Japanese scientists first extracted nuclei, the DNA-containing compartments of cells, from the muscles of a juvenile woolly mammoth called Yuka, discovered in 2010 in northeast Russia. The team then transplanted those nuclei into mouse eggs and watched what happened next. The mammoth cells did not come back to life to create a cloned mammoth, as researchers had hoped. But the cells did show some early signs that biological activity might be preserved for millennia, the researchers report in a paper published March 11 in Scientific Reports. Science News talked to Lawrence Smith to see if those claims really hold up. Smith, a geneticist and reproductive biologist at the University of Montreal Faculty of Veterinary Medicine who was not involved in the m study, is an expert in cloning. The study is part of an effort to clone a mammoth, Smith says. The scientists did similar work in 2015, but the new study presents evidence that the nuclei in the frozen animal’s cells still contained some important proteins, including some that spool DNA and others that form a scaffold that helps the nucleus keep its shape. To determine if those proteins could still do their jobs, Akira Iritani of Kindai University in Wakayama, Japan, and colleagues extracted 88 nuclei from muscle cells and transferred some to mouse oocytes, or eggs. Within the mouse eggs, the mammoth nuclei began showing signs of preparing to make new cells — assembling structures called spindles that help divvy up DNA in dividing cells, compacting the DNA and forming “blebs,” or bubblelike structures in the membrane surrounding the DNA.
3-16-19 Children's noses 'hold clues' to serious lung infections
Examining the bacteria and viruses in the noses of children could give clues to improve the diagnosis and treatment of severe lung infections, a new study has found. Lung infections are a leading cause of death in under-fives worldwide. The study found the make-up of bacteria and viruses was altered in the noses of children with respiratory infections. Researchers say the study helps explain why some children are more prone to developing infections than others. It could also be key to preventing serious lung infections. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh found that the differences indicated the severity of the condition and could help doctors predict how long the child needs to stay in hospital. They said that in less serious cases, it could reduce the need for antibiotics and help some children recover naturally. Prof Debby Bogaert, of University of Edinburgh's Medical Research Council Centre for Inflammation Research, who led the study, said: "Lung infections can be extremely serious in children and babies, and are very distressing for parents. "Our findings show for the first time that the total microbial community in the respiratory tract - rather than a single virus or a bacteria - is a vital indicator of respiratory health. "This could really impact on how doctors diagnose lower respiratory tract infections (LRTIs) and use precious antibiotics to fight infections." LRTIs include pneumonia and bronchiolitis.
3-15-19 More proof vaccines don’t cause autism
A decade-long study involving more than 650,000 children has once again confirmed what scientists have been saying for years: The measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine doesn’t increase a child’s risk of autism. The myth linking the MMR shot with autism has refused to die, even though the small and flawed 1998 study on which it is based has been widely and comprehensively debunked. The “anti-vax” movement has gathered steam in recent years, leading to a surge in measles cases. There are currently outbreaks of the disease in Washington state, New York, and Texas, and 206 cases of measles were confirmed across 11 states in January and February this year—more than in the whole of 2017. The new study followed 657,461 kids born from 1999 and 2010 in Denmark, which has a free and voluntary national vaccination program. Overall, 31,619 kids remained unvaccinated. Later, 6,517 children were diagnosed with autism. The researchers found that the children who received the vaccination were in no way more likely to develop autism than those who did not, that the shot had no triggering effect on those more susceptible to the developmental disorder, and that there was no clustering of autism cases after immunization. Saad Omer, a professor of global health, epidemiology, and pediatrics at Emory University, says this was one of the largest-ever studies conducted on the MMR vaccine and autism. “The appropriate interpretation,” he tells The Washington Post, “is that there’s no association whatsoever.”
3-15-19 Vaccine wars
A 6-year-old unvaccinated boy almost died in 2017 after contracting the state’s first known pediatric case of tetanus in more than 30 years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week. He spent 57 days hospitalized at a cost of $811,929 for a disease that’s preventable with five doses of a $30 vaccine. Six days after cutting his forehead while playing on a farm, the boy experienced muscle spasms and trouble breathing. He couldn’t open his mouth when admitted to the hospital, spent a month on a ventilator, and was in such pain that he wore earplugs in a darkened room for weeks to shut out light and noise. Surviving tetanus doesn’t provide future immunity, and the boy’s family declined to have him vaccinated after his recovery. In Oregon, 7.5 percent of kindergarten-age kids are unvaccinated for nonmedical reasons, one of the highest rates in the U.S.
3-15-19 The key to combating extremism is to address its social roots
Effective techniques for preventing extremism call for intervening early, making sure disenfranchised groups are included in society and disrupting stereotypes by making people work together. Deradicalisation programmes fail when they ignore this. Deradicalisation programmes are the bedrock of counter-terrorism strategies in many countries. They aim to combat extremism by identifying individuals who have become radicalised, or are in danger of becoming so, and reintegrating them to the mainstream using psychological and religious counselling as well as vocational training. In the UK, the most recent figures show that in 2015, 4000 people were reported to the government’s anti-terror programme. The majority – 70 per cent – are suspected Islamic extremists, but about a quarter are far-right radicals, and that number is growing. Critics fear that these programmes criminalise and stigmatise communities, families and individuals. In addition, there are questions about who governments collaborate with for information and whether public servants should be obliged to report potential radicals. There is also very little evidence that the programmes work. Most fail to assess the progress of participants, and rates of recidivism are rarely studied. In a report in 2016, the UK parliament’s human rights committee warned that the government’s counter-extremism strategy was based on unproven theories and risks making the situation worse. In the wake of the Manchester terror attack in May 2017, the government set up an independent commission for countering extremism which will seek to understand the scale of the problem and advise the government on the best response. The organisation’s leader, Sara Khan, said that extremists have become “increasingly professional” and are “thriving” in some areas of the UK. The key to combating extremism lies in addressing its social roots, and intervening early, before anyone becomes a “devoted actor” willing to lay down their lives for a cause, says Scott Atran at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Resolution of Intractable Conflicts. “Until then, there are all sorts of things you can do.” One of the most effective counter measures, he says, is community engagement. High-school football and the scouts movement have been effective responses to antisocial behaviour among the disenfranchised children of US immigrants, for example.
3-15-19 TV’s negative effect on memory
Watching television for more than 3½ hours a day could exacerbate memory loss in older people, a new study has found. Researchers in England carried out memory and fluency tests on 3,662 adults ages 50 and over—first in 2008–09 and again in 2014–15—and also asked about participants’ TV habits. Those who sat in front of the small screen for more than 3½ hours a day experienced an 8 to 10 percent decrease, on average, in verbal memory during the study period; those who watched less than that had a 4 to 5 percent decline. The researchers believe that the increased decline may be the result of viewing choices. “Older people tend to like watching more soap operas, which can be stressful because they identify closely with the characters,” Andrew Steptoe, from University College London, tells BBC.com. “This may create cognitive stress, which could contribute to memory decline.” Another possible factor is that people who watch a lot of TV are likely to spend less time on activities that help preserve mental function, such as reading and doing crosswords.
3-15-19 Sleep loss can’t be made up
You can’t make up for skimping on sleep during the week by crashing for 10 hours on the weekend. That’s the dispiriting conclusion of a new study by scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder, which says such catch-ups may even put people at risk of excess weight gain. The researchers enlisted 36 healthy adults ages 18 to 39 and had them stay in a lab for two weeks where they monitored the participants’ food intake, light exposure, and sleep. The test subjects were split into three groups, reports NBCNews.com. The first had nine hours’ sleep a night for 10 consecutive days; the second had only five hours a night over the same period; the third had five nights of five hours sleep, two “weekend” nights of unlimited sleep, and then three more nights of restricted sleep. The two sleep-deprived groups snacked more and gained weight. But while the group that consistently had only five hours sleep a night saw a 13 percent reduction in insulin sensitivity, a marker for diabetes risk, the catch-up group’s reduction was 27 percent. “Sleep isn’t a math game—you can’t balance it out,” says Azizi Seixas, from New York University School of Medicine, who wasn’t involved in the study. “Your body needs a schedule for a reason.”
3-15-19 Beating HIV with stem cells
An unnamed man in London has become only the second HIV patient ever to be declared free of the virus, after undergoing a bone marrow transplant. The man, who also had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, received bone marrow transplants in 2016 as part of his cancer treatment. They came from a donor with a rare genetic mutation that made his or her CCR5 gene—which allows HIV to enter cells—resistant to the virus. Since the man came off his anti-retroviral pills 18 months ago, the virus hasn’t returned. The first “cured” patient, Timothy Brown, underwent the same procedure about a decade ago. The treatment wouldn’t work for most people with HIV because stem cell transplants carry high risks: They require a patient’s immune system to be wiped out with powerful drugs or radiation and then reconstituted, reports NPR.org. But these new findings suggest “there exists a proof of concept that HIV is curable,” says Anton Pozniak, president of the International AIDS Society. “The hope is that this will eventually lead to a safe, cost-effective, and easy strategy to achieve these results using gene technology or antibody techniques.”
3-15-19 U.S. heart attack mortality reached a two-decade low in 2014
The percentage of heart attack patients dying dropped from 20 percent in 1995 to 12.4 percent. Heart-healthy changes to diet and exercise along with a national focus on improving treatment and recovery from heart attacks appears to be making a difference. Fewer older adults are having heart attacks, and fewer of those who do die as a result, according to an analysis of more than 4.3 million U.S. Medicare patients that spanned two decades up to 2014. The percentage of patients who died within 30 days of a heart attack dropped to 12.4 percent in 2014, from 20 percent in 1995, researchers report online March 15 in JAMA Network Open. Declines were seen across sex, race and age in this group of patients, who are 65 and older. The number of these older adults hospitalized for a heart attack also declined over the two decades, from 914 per 100,000 per year to 566 per 100,000 — an indication that fewer older adults are having heart attacks. The average age for a first heart attack was 78.2 in 2014, more than a year older than in 1995 when it was 76.9. Patients generally trimmed a couple of days from their stay in the hospital after a heart attack in 2014 compared to 1995. And fewer patients returned to the hospital within a year due to another heart attack. “Most of the basic effective therapies we have in prevention and treatment were available 20 years ago, but were being inconsistently applied,” says coauthor and cardiologist Harlan Krumholz of Yale School of Medicine. “There were massive opportunities to improve their use.”
3-15-19 Ancient migration transformed Spain's DNA
A migration from Central Europe transformed the genetic make-up of people in Spain during the Bronze Age, a study reveals. DNA evidence shows the migrants streamed over the Pyrenees, replacing existing male lineages across the region within a space of 400 years. It remains unclear whether violence played a role or whether a male-centric social structure was more important. The result comes from the most extensive study of its kind. Researchers reconstructed the population history of Iberia (modern Spain, Portugal, Gibraltar and Andorra) over 8,000 years - the biggest slice of time tackled by a single ancient DNA study. The region has been a crossroads for different cultures over time. Their study is published in Science journal. They extracted and analysed DNA from 403 Iberians who lived between 6,000 BC and AD 1,600. The Bronze Age migrants traced some of their ancestry to Neolithic (Stone Age) farmers found throughout Europe - including Spain - while the rest of their genetic make-up was like that of people living at the time on the Russian steppe. This steppe ancestry was introduced to Europe by nomadic herders who migrated west from Asia and the eastern fringes of Europe. One of the triggers may have been a crisis that caused population numbers to plunge in Europe towards the end of the Neolithic period (which preceded the Bronze Age). Recent studies suggest plague might have played a role. As the steppe people moved west, they picked up elements of culture from people they mixed with along the way. In Central Europe, one such mixed culture known as the Bell Beaker tradition formed. The Beakers and their descendants may have established highly stratified (unequal) societies in Europe, including Iberia - where they start turning up from 2,500BC.
3-15-19 A new T. rex exhibit takes a deep dive into the iconic dinosaur
Ultrafierce Tyrannosaurus rex is an icon. But the “tyrant lizard king,” which lived between 68 million and 66 million years ago, is just the youngest member of a family of dinosaurs that went back to about 167 million years ago. The earliest tyrannosaurs were quick and small. So how did T. rex become so big and bad? That’s one of the questions at the heart of “T. rex: The Ultimate Predator,” an exhibit now open at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The exhibit takes a deep, multisensory dive into what we know about this most famous of dinosaurs. It is a fitting centerpiece for the museum’s 150th anniversary: The very first T. rex specimen was unearthed in Montana in 1905 by Barnum Brown, a paleontologist at the museum. In 1908, Brown and his team dug up a second T. rex skeleton — this one nearly perfect. The new exhibit includes a reproduction of this skeleton but goes beyond that static representation, drawing on cutting-edge research over the last 10 years or so to illustrate how scientists now think the animals grew, moved, ate and perceived the world. For instance, cranial analyses suggest that T. rex had excellent vision and a very good sense of smell. The dinosaur also had a bone-crushing bite force (SN: 11/10/18, p. 13). Perhaps reassuringly, the exhibit also notes that while a juvenile T. rex could run — defined as lifting one foot fully off the ground followed by the other — adult T. rexes were too heavy for a running gait. Their skeletons would have buckled under such a weighty load. Life-size models of T. rex at various life stages help illustrate the animal’s astoundingly rapid rate of growth. Fluffy hatchlings were perhaps the size of chickens (and only about 40 percent of them survived their first year). By age 4, the animals were already 4 meters tall, and by age 20, they had reached their full height, about 13 meters. A T. rex that lived to age 28 was essentially a senior citizen; no known T. rex specimens are thought to be older than that.
3-14-19 The human cost of insulin in America
This is the list of what Laura Marston has sacrificed to keep herself alive: Her car, her furniture, her apartment, her retirement fund, her dog. At 36 years old, she has already sold all of her possessions twice to afford the insulin her body needs every day. Insulin is not like other drugs. It's a natural hormone that controls our blood sugar levels - too high causes vision loss, confusion, nausea, and eventually, organ failure; too low leads to heart irregularities, mood swings, seizures, loss of consciousness. For most of us, our bodies produce insulin naturally. But for Type 1 (T1) diabetics like Ms Marston, insulin comes in clear glass vials, handed over the pharmacy counter each month - if they can afford it. One vial of the insulin Ms Marston uses now costs $275 (£210) without health insurance. In 1923, the discoverers of insulin sold its patent for $1, hoping the low price would keep the essential treatment available to everyone who needed it. Now, retail prices in the US are around the $300 range for all insulins from the three major brands that control the market. Even accounting for inflation, that's a price increase of over 1,000%. Stories of Americans rationing insulin - and dying for it - have been making national headlines. The most famous case, perhaps, was 26-year-old Alec Smith, who died in 2017 less than a month after he aged out of his mother's health insurance plan. Despite working full-time making more than minimum wage, he could not afford to buy new insurance or pay the $1,000 a month for insulin without it. Ms Marston was diagnosed with T1 diabetes when she was 14. She laughs when recalling how the price of insulin in 1996 - $25 for one vial - was a shock to her. Two decades later, Ms Marston still uses the same formula of insulin - Eli Lilly's Humalog. Even the packaging is the same. "Nothing about it has changed, except the price has gone up from $21 a vial to $275 a vial."(Webmaster's comment: The idea is to milk every penny you can from these people before letting them die. Classic Capitalist Philosophy of Corporate Executives!)
3-14-19 Humans couldn't pronounce 'f' and 'v' sounds before farming developed
Human speech contains more than 2000 different sounds, from the ubiquitous “m” and “a” to the rare clicks of some southern African languages. But why are certain sounds more common than others? A ground-breaking, five-year investigation shows that diet-related changes in human bite led to new speech sounds that are now found in half the world’s languages. More than 30 years ago, the linguist Charles Hockett noted that speech sounds called labiodentals, such as “f” and “v”, were more common in the languages of societies that ate softer foods. Now a team of researchers led by Damián Blasi at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, has pinpointed how and why this trend arose. They found that the upper and lower incisors of ancient human adults were aligned, making it hard to produce labiodentals, which are formed by touching the lower lip to the upper teeth. Later, our jaws changed to an overbite structure, making it easier to produce such sounds. The team showed that this change in bite correlated with the development of agriculture in the Neolithic period. Food became easier to chew at this point, which led to changes in human jaws and teeth: for instance, because it takes less pressure to chew softer, farmed foods, the jawbone doesn’t have to do as much work and so doesn’t grow to be so large.Analyses of a language database also confirmed that there was a global change in the sound of world languages after the Neolithic era, with the use of “f” and “v” increasing dramatically in recent millennia. These sounds are still not found in the languages of many hunter-gatherer people today. This research overturns the prevailing view that all human speech sounds were present when Homo sapiens evolved around 300,000 years ago. “The set of speech sounds we use has not necessarily remained stable since the emergence of our species, but rather the immense diversity of speech sounds that we find today is the product of a complex interplay of factors involving biological change and cultural evolution,” said team member Steven Moran, a linguist at the University of Zurich, at a briefing about this study.
3-14-19 The rise of farming altered our bite and changed how people talk
Eating softer food preserves a slight overbite that makes it easier to pronounce certain sounds. Humankind’s gift of gab is not set in stone, and farming could help to explain why. Over the last 6,000 years or so, farming societies increasingly have substituted processed dairy and grain products for tougher-to-chew game meat and wild plants common in hunter-gatherer diets. Switching to those diets of softer, processed foods altered people’s jaw structure over time, rendering certain sounds like “f” and “v” easier to utter, and changing languages worldwide, scientists contend. People who regularly chew tough foods such as game meat experience a jaw shift that removes a slight overbite from childhood. But individuals who grow up eating softer foods retain that overbite into adulthood, say comparative linguist Damián Blasi of the University of Zurich and his colleagues. Computer simulations suggest that adults with an overbite are better able to produce certain sounds that require touching the lower lip to the upper teeth, the researchers report in the March 15 Science. Linguists classify those speech sounds, found in about half of the world’s languages, as labiodentals. And when Blasi and his team reconstructed language change over time among Indo-European tongues (SN: 11/25/17, p. 16), currently spoken from Iceland to India, the researchers found that the likelihood of using labiodentals in those languages rose substantially over the past 6,000 to 7,000 years. That was especially true when foods such as milled grains and dairy products started appearing (SN: 2/1/03, p. 67). “Labiodental sounds emerged recently in our species, and appear more frequently in populations with long traditions of eating soft foods,” Blasi said at a March 12 telephone news conference.
3-14-19 Flickers and buzzes sweep mouse brains of Alzheimer’s plaques
Memories also improved after a daily dose of fast clicking noises. Fast clicking sounds can boost brainpower in mice with signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Like flickering lights, these external sounds spur a type of brain wave that seemed to sweep disease-related plaques from mice’s brains, researchers report in the March 14 Cell. It’s too early to say whether the same sorts of flickers and clicks could help people with Alzheimer’s. If so, the treatment would represent a fundamentally new way to target the neurodegenerative disease — with lights and sounds instead of drugs. An earlier study of mice, by neuroscientist Li-Huei Tsai of MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and colleagues, focused on the eyes. Lights that flickered exactly 40 times a second (a “twinkling” effect, Tsai says) kicked off gamma waves, a type of brain wave thought to happen during concentration. In mice, these brain waves somehow reduced amyloid-beta, the protein that piles up in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s (SN: 1/21/17, p. 13). But in that study, A-beta was reduced only in the part of the brain that handles vision — an area not thought to be key to Alzheimer’s progression. Sounds that hum at a rate of 40 clicks per second, or 40 hertz, do the same trick of spurring gamma waves and clearing A-beta, but in a more relevant part of the brain — the hippocampus, a structure that is important for memory and that’s affected by Alzheimer’s, the researchers found. A daily hour of fast clicks, played by speakers above the mice’s cages for seven days, also improved the memories of mice genetically engineered to have signs of Alzheimer’s. Compared with mice that heard randomly spaced clicks, mice that listened to 40-hertz clicks were faster in finding a hidden platform in a water maze, and better at recognizing an object they had seen before.
3-13-19 Drug-releasing coil in stomach could provide better treatment for TB
If you hate taking pills, you might be excited by the invention of a coil that sits in the stomach slowly releasing medication over weeks. This could play a major role in reducing deadly tuberculosis infections and the rapidly growing problem of antimicrobial resistance, says the device’s developer Malvika Verma of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Once fully coiled, the device is 10 centimetres long and threaded with pills. “You have a hole in the pill, kind of like a candy necklace, and each pill can be a different drug,” says Verma. The coil can be unfurled to deliver it to the stomach via the nose and throat, where it springs back into a coil again. This coil is too large to leave the stomach, so it stays there, and the medicines threaded onto it leach out at a rate depending on the type of drug and the polymer the developers use to make the pills. After the drugs have dissolved away, the device can be retrieved via the nose and throat using a magnet attached to the coil. Verma and her team decided to test how well the device would work delivering antibiotics to pigs. Over the course of a month, blood tests revealed the coil was steadily dispensing the medication into the body, and pigs suffered no apparent side effects such as weight loss, issues passing food or liquids or stomach injury. They chose to trial the device with the kind of antibiotics used to treat TB because the condition requires people to take multiple tablets every day. For many patients, particularly those in remote areas, sticking to such a regime can be quite difficult. Yet failing to do so contributes to the evolution of drug-resistant TB strains, and these are expected to account for one in four drug-resistant related deaths by 2050.
3-13-19 Italy bans unvaccinated children from schools after measles outbreaks
As countries around the world grapple with rise of “anti-vax” sentiment, non-vaccinating parents in Italy face fines or their children being turned away from school. Italy made vaccinations compulsory for children attending state schools this week. Children under the age of 6 will be turned away from nurseries and kindergartens unless their parents have provided proof of their vaccination status. Children aged 6 and over won’t be stopped from attending school, but their parents will have to pay fines of €500 (£430). The required vaccines include measles, mumps and rubella, known as MMR, as well as chickenpox and polio. Children’s immunisation rates have been falling in many Western countries for the past couple of decades, stemming from mistaken fears that vaccines carry health risks. Only a minority of places have made vaccinations mandatory for attending school. These include France, Germany, the US and parts of Australia. In Italy, the law was introduced in 2017 but there have been tussles over whether and when it would come into force. Parents had until this week to provide immunisation certificates to schools, so parents in some regions are now being sent letters saying their child has been suspended. Health officials seek to get vaccination rates up to 95 per cent, the level that gives herd immunity. This means there are so few unvaccinated people that if one person brings in the disease from elsewhere they are unlikely to come into contact with anyone they can pass it on to. This stops outbreaks from spreading, and so shields infants who are too young to be vaccinated or people who cannot be vaccinated because of an impaired immune system. “These children need to be protected,” says Siddhartha Datta of the World Health Organization.
3-13-19 Hidden compounds in many medications can trigger allergies
An analysis of 42,000 pill recipes shows 93 percent have potentially problematic ingredients. For some patients, the so-called inactive ingredients in pills may be more active than previously thought. Every pill contains a pharmaceutical drug with some therapeutic effect on the body, as well as a mixture of inactive compounds added to boost the medication’s effectiveness or simply to make the pill more palatable. Inactive ingredients are generally considered harmless. But many pills contain chemicals that can cause allergic reactions or digestive problems in some patients, according to an analysis of the chemical ingredient lists for thousands of pills. Researchers searched a database that contained about 42,000 recipes for oral medications marketed in the United States. Of those, 92.8 percent contained at least one of 38 inactive ingredients that have triggered allergic reactions in patients, the researchers report online March 13 in Science Translational Medicine. And 55 percent of pills contained at least one of a class of sugars called FODMAPs, which can cause digestive problems in people with irritable bowel syndrome. Science News spoke with study coauthor Giovanni Traverso, a gastroenterologist and biomedical engineer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and MIT, about what we do and don’t know about the risks posed by oft-overlooked inactive ingredients. His comments are edited for clarity and brevity. Once an inactive ingredient passes toxicity screening conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it’s considered safe for the general population in approved levels. But as more people take medications that contain these chemicals, “we start to appreciate and uncover some of the potential side effects” for a minority of patients that weren’t revealed during the approval process, Traverso says.
3-13-19 Brain scans reveal actors lose their sense of self when acting a role
It is often said that great actors lose themselves in their roles, and now a brain activity study shows that is more than just a turn of phrase. While portraying a character, actors experience decreased activity in brain regions that help form a sense of self. “You have one voice, one face, one body. The more you’re pretending to be someone else, the less of you there is. It’s a zero-sum game,” says Steven Brown at McMaster University in Canada. To see how brain activity changes during acting, Brown and his colleagues asked 15 trained actors to answer hypothetical questions both from their own perspective and while assuming the persona of the title characters from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. For example, they were asked if they would attend the funeral of someone they didn’t like or whether they would tell their parents if they fell in love. The researchers also asked the actors to answer the questions while pretending to be a real person they know well. This third-person perspective helps us understand what brain regions activate when we think about the intentions of others, a key aspect of the phenomenon known as theory of mind. The actors answered the questions while having their brains scanned by an MRI machine. Compared with responses from their own perspective, answering from a third-person point of view lowered brain activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with regulating emotions, and the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, which is associated with maintaining one’s sense of self. These deactivations were even stronger when they were acting as Shakespeare’s characters, which Brown says indicates that the actors were suppressing their self-processing. In the acting task, brain activity was also stronger in the precuneus, which is involved in attentional focus.
3-13-19 Geneticists push for a 5-year global ban on gene-edited babies
Previous attempts to discourage the experiments with somewhat softer lingo haven’t worked. Eighteen researchers, including two CRISPR pioneers, are calling for a temporary ban on creating gene-edited babies. “We call for a global moratorium on all clinical uses of human germline editing — that is, changing heritable DNA (in sperm, eggs or embryos) to make genetically modified children,” the statement’s cosigners, who come from seven countries, wrote in the March 14 Nature. Among the document’s signatories are CRISPR pioneers Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University and Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin. The proposed moratorium would last about five years to give time for public education and debate about experiments. The delay would buy time for scientists to further test and refine CRISPR/Cas9 and other gene-editing tools to make them safer. The moratorium would also be voluntary, with each country pledging individually not to allow clinical trials for creating gene-edited children. Countries would make independent decisions on how long such a ban should last. Gene editing of embryos, eggs and sperm would still be allowed for research purposes, but those then couldn’t be implanted in a woman’s uterus to establish pregnancy. Researchers could still use CRISPR/Cas9 and other gene editors to treat genetic diseases in adults and children, provided that any changes to those people’s DNA couldn’t be passed on to the next generation. (Webmaster's comment: The forces against progress rear it's ugly head as it has since time immemorial!)
3-13-19 Home DNA-testing firm will let users block FBI access to their data
One of the biggest home DNA-testing companies seems to have bowed to a backlash over its decision to allow the FBI access to its database, by announcing a new way for customers to stop law-enforcement agencies accessing their data. FamilyTreeDNA faced criticism when BuzzFeed News recently revealed that the company had chosen to cooperate with the FBI without consulting customers. Initially, the only way for individuals to deny the FBI access was to opt out of the firm’s DNA-matching service entirely, depriving themselves of a tool that has become vital for many genealogists. But on 12 March, FamilyTreeDNA told customers that they could now retain the matching service but end access by law-enforcement agencies. “Users now have the ability to opt out of matching with DNA relatives whose accounts are flagged as being created to identify the remains of a deceased individual or a perpetrator of a homicide or sexual assault, also referred to as Law Enforcement Matching (LEM),” the company said in an email outlining changes to its terms and conditions for users. Law-enforcement agencies will now have to register under a special process to access the company’s matching service, FamilyTreeDNA said. The combination of genetic data from home DNA-testing kits and family tree databases has allowed individuals to find relatives by matching DNA, but has also opened a new way for police to solve crimes. Police used the technique last year to identify the man thought to be behind a series of murders in California during the 1970s. FamilyTreeDNA has made a selling point of its strong stance on privacy. Chief executive Bennett Greenspan said in January that he wanted to create a framework that can “help prevent violent crimes and ensure the privacy of customers”. (Webmaster's comment: Catching all the brute males beating and raping women and children trumps DNA privacy in my book! There's literally millions of these bastards and they need to be imprisoned!)
3-13-19 Stonehenge was 'hub for Britain's earliest mass parties'
Evidence of large-scale prehistoric feasting rituals found at Stonehenge could be the earliest mass celebrations in Britain, say archaeologists. The study examined 131 pigs' bones at four Late Neolithic sites, Durrington Walls, Marden, Mount Pleasant and West Kennet Palisade Enclosures. The sites, which served Stonehenge and Avebury, hosted the feasts. Researchers think guests had to bring meat raised locally to them, resulting in pigs arriving from distant places. The results of isotope analysis show the pig bones excavated from these sites were from animals raised in Scotland, the North East of England and West Wales, as well as numerous other locations across Britain. Study lead Dr Richard Madgwick from the University of Cardiff said: "These gatherings could be seen as the first united cultural events of our island, with people from all corners of Britain descending on the areas around Stonehenge to feast on food that had been specially reared and transported from their homes." Dr Madgwick said finding pigs in the vicinity of the feasting sites would have been "relatively easy" making the fact they brought the animals long distances "arguably the most startling finding" as this would have required "a monumental effort". "This suggests that prescribed contributions were required and that rules dictated that offered pigs must be raised by the feasting participants, accompanying them on their journey, rather than being acquired locally," he said.
3-13-19 Pharmaceutical abuse sent more than 350,000 people to the ER in 2016
People ages 15–34 made up nearly half of these emergency room visits.. The misuse of prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications resulted in an estimated 358,000 trips to U.S. emergency departments in 2016 — and almost half of those cases involved young people ages 15 to 34, according to a new study based on a national public health surveillance system. The analysis, reported online March 6 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, was based on data reported by a nationally representative sample of 56 hospitals from January 1 to December 31, 2016. Overall, two pharmaceuticals played a part in most of the cases, either alone or with other substances. Nearly 47 percent of ER visits involved misuse of benzodiazepines (SN: 2/16/19, p. 12), while prescription opioids (SN: 9/2/17, p. 5) were implicated in 36 percent. Close to a quarter of the total estimated ER visits were cases in which patients were unresponsive, had stopped breathing or had suffered cardiac arrest, signs of a severe overdose, researchers report. And nearly 53 percent of the total cases also involved at least one other substance, such as alcohol or illicit drugs like cocaine. “These data suggest the issue is one not merely of a single medication, but multiple substances being involved,” says coauthor Andrew Geller, a medical epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “They highlight an opportunity for clinicians to screen for and address polysubstance use.” The survey also showed that people in different age groups had a predilection for different substances. Those younger than 34 were more likely to misuse antihistamines or stimulants, while those ages 35 to 64 were more likely to have abused prescription opioids or muscle relaxants.
3-13-19 Too much sunscreen? Why avoiding the sun could damage your health
For years we have been told to slather up or seek shade to avoid skin cancer. But now it is becoming clear that shunning the sun comes with its own health perils. SLIP! Slop! Slap! As public-health campaigns go, Cancer Council Australia’s dancing seagull telling people to slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen and slap on a hat must rank among the stickiest in history. Launched in 1981, it prompted many a devoted sun worshipper to reconsider whether a “healthy tan” was virtuous, or a herald of premature skin ageing and cancer. It seems to have been effective: after increasing in the general population for decades, rates of the deadliest form of skin cancer, melanoma, are now falling among Australians under the age of 40. “These are people who will have been exposed to the [Slip, Slop, Slap] message for pretty much their whole lives,” says Heather Walker of Cancer Council Australia. But has this come at a cost? In Australia and worldwide, the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency is increasing – and sunscreen has taken much of the blame. Low levels of vitamin D are associated with weaker bones and teeth, infections, cardiovascular disease and autoimmune and inflammatory diseases including multiple sclerosis. And although vitamin D supplements have been touted as a solution, so far they don’t seem to have the effect that was expected. Now evidence is accumulating that sun exposure has benefits beyond vitamin D. All of this has prompted some to label sunscreen “the new margarine” – a reference to health advice in the 1980s and 90s to switch from butter to hydrogenated vegetable oil to protect heart health, only to discover that the trans-fats found in many margarines were potentially more harmful. Could sunscreen face a similar fate? And if sun exposure is necessary, how do we reap the benefits without getting skin cancer? The Ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all recognised that sunlight could be harnessed to promote health. Hippocrates, for instance, believed that it was beneficial in the treatment of most ailments. But medical interest in sunlight truly took hold at the turn of the 20th century, following observations that it kills bacteria and that a deficiency is associated with rickets, a condition that affects bone development during childhood. By the late-1920s, sunlight was being touted as a cure for pretty much every illness under the sun, and a suntan had become an emblem of health and status.
3-13-19 Handheld device could detect CRISPR bioweapons before they spread
A HANDHELD device could spot a potential new type of bioweapon made feasible by the latest gene- editing technology. Researchers around the world are using CRISPR to make gene drives – bits of DNA that, when inserted into a living thing, can bypass the normal rules of genetic inheritance to spread widely in a population within just a few generations. Gene drives could be used for good, for example to stop the spread of malaria by adding a gene to mosquitoes that renders all male offspring infertile. This could wipe out all malaria-carrying mosquitoes in a region. However, there is also a risk of malicious use. For instance, gene drives could be used to make the bite of harmless insects deadly, or to wipe out key pollinators. But to counter bioweapons based on gene drives, you first have to detect them, says Carina Nieuwenweg of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, who is working on the handheld detector. And that is best done with a quick field test rather than sending samples to a laboratory. With her team’s device, all you would need to do is place a mosquito, for instance, in a small vial. “You just put the mosquito in and shake it once or twice, and that’s enough,” says Nieuwenweg. The vial is then heated to 60°C. Chemicals inside detect the DNA sequence of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene used to create gene drives. If the target DNA is present, the liquid in the vial changes colour (ChemRxiv, doi.org/c3gh). The detector was initially developed as a student project, but has since been demonstrated to Dutch intelligence services, says Nieuwenweg. She is now getting funding to work on anti-gene drive technologies from the country’s defence ministry.
3-12-19 Stroke victims with busy immune responses may also see mental declines
A small study hints at a way to predict who might fare worse among survivors. How active a person’s immune system is soon after a stroke may be tied to later mental declines, a new study finds. Researchers took blood samples from 24 stroke patients up to nine times over the course of a year. Twelve of the patients also completed a mental-skills test at four points during that time. Patients who had highly active immune cells on the second day after a stroke were more likely to see their test scores decline a year later, researchers report online March 12 in Brain. “The people who either got better on the task or stayed the same had less of an immune response at day 2 [after the stroke], and the people who had more of an immune response at day 2 were more likely to decline and do worse later,” says study coauthor Marion Buckwalter, a neuroscientist at Stanford University School of Medicine. A stroke occurs when the brain loses oxygen, due to a blocked or burst blood vessel. Buckwalter and her colleagues used a technique called mass cytometry that analyzes thousands of immune cells and their signaling molecules — which indicate how active a cell is — from blood samples of patients who had suffered a stroke. The researchers also tested patients’ memory, concentration, language skills and other thinking skills using the Montreal Cognitive Assessment. It’s unclear why some patients have a more active immune response than others in the days after a stroke. But with more research, it’s possible that the response may be a way to predict which patients will fare worse after a stroke, the researchers say.
3-12-19 Italy bans unvaccinated children from school
Italian children have been told not to turn up to school unless they can prove they have been properly vaccinated. The deadline follows months of national debate over compulsory vaccination. Parents risk being fined up to €500 (£425; $560) if they send their unvaccinated children to school. Children under six can be turned away. The new law came amid a surge in measles cases - but Italian officials say vaccination rates have improved since it was introduced. Under Italy's so-called Lorenzin law - named after the former health minister who introduced it - children must receive a range of mandatory immunisations before attending school. They include vaccinations for chickenpox, polio, measles, mumps, and rubella. Children up to the age of six years will be excluded from nursery and kindergarten without proof of vaccination under the new rules. Those aged between six and 16 cannot be banned from attending school, but their parents face fines if they do not complete the mandatory course of immunisations. The deadline for certification was due to be 10 March after a previous delay - but as it fell on a weekend, it was extended to Monday. "Now everyone has had time to catch up," Health Minister Giulia Grillo told La Repubblica newspaper. She had reportedly resisted political pressure from deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini to extend the deadline even further. Ms Grillo said the rules were now simple: "No vaccine, no school". (Webmaster's comment: We need the same rule in the United States. We need to keep the disease carriers out of our schools!)
3-12-19 We should cautiously welcome use of a form of ketamine for depression
LAST week, the US Food and Drug Administration approved a form of ketamine for use in treatment-resistant depression. This is a landmark moment. Esketamine, as it is known, is the first novel drug therapy for depression to emerge in over 50 years. People will administer the esketamine themselves, under the supervision of a healthcare professional, by squirting it up their nose. At first they will take it a few times a week, then monthly. Given that ketamine use can escalate to addiction, there are fears that people taking the drug medicinally could turn to illegal recreational suppliers, as has happened in the US with opioids, leading to a crisis. Will we soon have a ketamine epidemic too? Thankfully, the evidence so far suggests that people treated with esketamine don’t go on to become addicted to ketamine. And none of them developed the severe consequences seen in some daily ketamine users like bladder dysfunction and psychosis. Janssen, the company that developed the drug therapy, conducted trials with people who have depression that is resistant to treatment, which is about 30 per cent of cases. This kind of severe depression often renders people unable to speak, get out of bed or engage with the world. Yet within minutes of being given ketamine, many are transformed: smiling and full of life. When prescribing any drug, there is a cost-benefit analysis. The rapid action of ketamine means it can save lives when given to people having suicidal thoughts.
3-12-19 Solar storm: Evidence found of huge eruption from Sun
Scientists have found evidence of a huge blast of radiation from the Sun that hit Earth more than 2,000 years ago. The result has important implications for the present, because solar storms can disrupt modern technology. The team found evidence in Greenland ice cores that the Earth was bombarded with solar proton particles in 660BC. The event was about 10 times more powerful than any since modern instrumental records began. The Sun periodically releases huge blasts of charged particles and other radiation that can travel towards Earth. The particular kind of solar emission recorded in the Greenland ice is known as a solar proton event (SPE). In the modern era, when these high-energy particles collide with Earth, they can knock out electronics in satellites we rely on for communications and services such as GPS. The radiation may also pose a health risk for astronauts. And passengers and crew on commercial aircraft that fly at high altitudes and close to the poles, such as on transatlantic routes, could receive increased radiation doses - though this depends on many variables. Other types of solar radiation events can trigger aurorae in the high atmosphere and shut down electrical grids. "There are high-energy solar energetic particle events, or solar proton events. These are the high energy particles directly hitting Earth and producing the particles we measure," co-author Raimund Muscheler, from Lund University in Sweden, told BBC News. "Connected to this are also the lower energy particles that come usually within 1-4 days to Earth. These produce the geomagnetic storms."
3-11-19 Breathing in before doing something may actually make you better at it
Breathing in before a task may make you more likely to succeed at it. The process appears to prime the brain for the activity and helps people to do better on some tests. Noam Sobel and his colleagues at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel wondered if inhaling can help people perform better in tasks. To test this, the team hooked around 30 participants up to a device that measured nasal inhalation and exhalation and then showed them a shape or word. The participants had to say if the shape was physically possible or if the word was real or made up. Participants started each task by pressing a button. They did this within one or two seconds of inhaling on average, although they didn’t realise they did this, as confirmed by the team by asking them afterwards. When instead of using the button, Sobel and his team controlled the start of the shape task, they found participants scored an average of 73 per cent when inhaling, compared to 68 per cent when exhaling. “In cognitive brain science we’re often used to looking at minute differences that gain statistical significance over large data sets,” says Sobel. “It’s a real difference in performance.” However, they did not see a significant difference with the word task and some participants did better when exhaling than the inhaling. The improvements in the shape task cannot be explained by better oxygen levels in the brain because this does not change unless someone holds their breath for dozens of seconds, says co-author Ofer Perl. The team also measured electrical activity in the brain during the tasks and found there were shifts associated with increased attention when participants inhaled. “This means your brain processes things differently from inhale to exhale,” says Sobel. The same effect didn’t happen during exhalation.
3-11-19 Brain zap prison experiment suspended by Spanish government
Government officials in Spain have suspended tests to see if zapping the brains of prisoners can make them less aggressive, following an exclusive report by New Scientist on the experiment. The research, involving inmates at Huelva prison, was scheduled to begin this month. The day after New Scientist reported details of the planned experiment, the Spanish interior ministry told journalists that the tests will now be suspended. The government says that permission for the experiments was given by the previous government and it wants to find out more about the study before it is allowed to proceed. The interior ministry says the move is a precaution, and that it has asked its office for prison health to investigate and report back. The trial, which was approved by prison officials and a university ethics committee, was to test the impact of small electrical current passed into the frontal lobe brain regions of male prisoners, including some serving murder sentences. Psychologists wanted to deliver three 15-minute sessions of transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS) and see if it changed levels of the men’s self-reported aggression. All were volunteers. Some bioethicists in Spain have supported the study and its goals. But experts elsewhere have raised concerns about prisoners feeling coerced into participating. Andrés Molero Chamizo, the psychologist at Huelva University who leads the project, says the government hasn’t contacted him. “We do not know the reasons. We need to wait and see what happens.” The Spanish press “has generated a non-scientific debate that is damaging the study”, says Molero Chamizo. Original approval for the study was granted by the then-ruling People’s Party, which was kicked out of government after a corruption scandal and vote of no-confidence last year. The Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party is now in charge, but has called a general election for next month.
3-11-19 One of the strongest known solar storms blasted Earth in 660 B.C.
Traces left in ice cores and tree rings allowed researchers to estimate the storm’s power. One of the strongest solar storms ever to hurtle toward Earth blasted the planet in 660 B.C., researchers say, based on traces of the storm preserved in both ice cores and tree rings. The study was published online March 11 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As the sun’s magnetic field shifts, it occasionally releases bursts of charged particles into space. In the most extreme solar storms, called solar proton events, these charged particles are dramatically sped up by interactions with other solar emissions: solar flares or coronal mass ejections. Even Earth’s protective magnetic field can’t deflect such swift, energetic particle streams. The radiation is particularly hazardous to modern technology and astronauts. It’s unclear how common such extreme events are; satellite- and ground-based instruments have tracked them for only about 70 years. To look farther back in time, researchers hunt for spikes in cosmogenic radionuclides such as carbon-14 — recorded in tree rings — or beryllium-10 and chlorine-36 — preserved in ice cores. Such radionuclides form when cosmic rays interact with molecules in Earth’s atmosphere. In 2017, scientists identified a sudden spike in tree ring carbon-14 dating to about 660 B.C. that might indicate a solar proton event. But a carbon-14 spike can also signal a supernova or a solar flare. In the new study, researchers led by geologist Paschal O’Hare, then at Lund University in Sweden, examined two Greenland ice cores. O’Hare, now at Heathgate Resources in Adelaide, Australia, and his colleagues found spikes in beryllium-10 and chlorine-36 dating to the same time.
3-11-19 The ‘roof of the world’ was raised more recently than once thought
Today the central Tibetan Plateau, at an average of 4,500 meters above sea level, is known as the roof of the world. New fossil and geochemical studies suggest the uplift of the plateau may have happened more recently than once thought. Plant fossils discovered in rocks from the Tibetan Plateau and a new analysis of the area’s geochemistry are rewriting the uplift history of the region dubbed the “roof of the world.” This new research suggests that the story of the rise to its current dizzying height is far more complicated than just raising the roof. Previous research has suggested that the plateau reached its current height — about 4.5 kilometers above sea level, on average — by at least 40 million years ago. But chemical evidence left in the region’s rocks suggest that couldn’t have happened before about 40 million years ago, researchers report in the March 1 Science. Meanwhile, another team of researchers suggests that, as recently as 25 million years ago, the region wasn’t yet a flat, windswept plateau. Instead, it was a diverse landscape of steep mountains surrounding a deep valley where palm trees grew, the team reports online March 6 in Science Advances. The uplift of the Tibetan Plateau altered atmospheric patterns in the region, causing the onset of monsoons in South Asia as well as the drying out of Asia’s interior, says Svetlana Botsyun, a paleoclimatologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany. In fact, the plateau is so tall that it also affects the atmosphere around the globe, altering temperature, precipitation, humidity and cloud cover, Botsyun says.
3-11-19 Galleonosaurus dorisae: New dinosaur discovered in Australia
Scientists have identified a new dinosaur in south-eastern Australia. It’s thought that the Galleonosaurus dorisae was alive 125 million years ago and would have been roughly the same height as a wallaby. It was given its name because its jaw resembles an upturned galleon ship. Based on its teeth, Galleonsaurus would have been a herbivore and belonged to the ornithopod family.
3-9-19 How your body talks to your brain
And what it means for processing your emotions. Have you ever been startled by someone suddenly talking to you when you thought you were alone? Even when they apologize for surprising you, your heart goes on pounding in your chest. You are very aware of this sensation. But what kind of experience is it, and what can it tell us about relations between the heart and the brain? When considering the senses, we tend to think of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. However, these are classified as exteroceptive senses, that is, they tell us something about the outside world. In contrast, interoception is a sense that informs us about our internal bodily sensations, such as the pounding of our heart, the flutter of butterflies in our stomach, or feelings of hunger. The brain represents, integrates, and prioritizes interoceptive information from the internal body. These are communicated through a set of distinct neural and humoral (i.e., blood-borne) pathways. This sensing of internal states of the body is part of the interplay between body and brain: It maintains homeostasis, the physiological stability necessary for survival; it provides key motivational drivers such as hunger and thirst; it explicitly represents bodily sensations, such as bladder distension. But that is not all, and herein lies the beauty of interoception: Our feelings, thoughts, and perceptions are also influenced by the dynamic interaction between body and brain. The shaping of emotional experience through the body's internal physiology has long been recognized. The American philosopher William James argued in 1892 that the mental aspects of emotion, the "feeling states," are a product of physiology. He reversed our intuitive causality, arguing that the physiological changes themselves give rise to the emotional state: Our heart does not pound because we are afraid; fear arises from our pounding heart. Contemporary experiments demonstrate the neural and mental representation of internal bodily sensations as integral for the experience of emotions; those individuals with heightened interoception tend to experience emotions with greater intensity. The anterior insula is a key brain area, processing both emotions and internal visceral signals, supporting the idea that this area is key in processing internal bodily sensations as a means to inform emotional experience. Individuals with enhanced interoception also have greater activation of the insula during interoceptive processing and enhanced grey-matter density of this area.
3-9-19 Can acupuncture help menopause symptoms?
For some women, the menopause and the years leading up to it, can be a time of troubling emotional and physical symptoms. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) eases symptoms like hot flushes and sweats, but it's not suitable for all women. Now, a small study published in BMJ Open suggests acupuncture may be worth considering. The Danish study found that five weeks of acupuncture in women with menopausal symptoms reduced hot flushes, night sweats, sleep disturbances and emotional problems. Researchers at the University of Southern Denmark cautioned that they couldn't rule out that the results were down to the placebo effect. The placebo effect is where a treatment works because a patient believes it will, rather than as a result of the treatment itself. One of the study authors, Prof Frans Boch Waldorff, from the University of Southern Denmark, said: "We can't explain the underlying mechanism behind acupuncture, nor determine how much of the effect is caused by placebo. "But this was a safe, cost-effective and simple procedure, with very few side-effects reported by the women. "Women seeking acupuncture treatment for menopausal symptoms should be informed of the current evidence, and its limitations, so they can make a decision."
3-8-19 Long hours stress women more
Women who work long hours are more likely to suffer from depression than men who do the same, a new study has found. British researchers examined data from a study involving 20,000 adults, reports The Times (U.K.). Compared with women who worked a regular week of between 35 and 40 hours, women who worked 55-plus hours were 7.3 percent more likely to show symptoms of depression, such as stress, insomnia, and feelings of worthlessness. Men who worked the same hours did not show a similar increase. Lead author Gill Weston, from University College London, stressed that the study didn’t show cause and effect. But she suggested that the difference could be because women tend to do more housework, “leading to extensive total work hours, added time pressures, and overwhelming responsibilities.” The study also found that both men and women who regularly worked weekends were more likely to become depressed than those with normal hours.
3-8-19 Green spaces and mental health
Leaves and grass are good for developing brains. Children who grow up with greener surroundings, even just a city street near a park, have a significantly lower risk of developing mental illnesses later in life. That’s the conclusion of a major new study by researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark, reports NPR.org. The team analyzed decades of satellite imagery and detailed health records for nearly 1 million Danes born from 1985 to 2003. They found that kids raised near high amounts of green space have up to a 55 percent lower risk of developing disorders such as schizophrenia and stress-related conditions, even after adjusting for income, urbanization, and family history of mental illness. While the findings don’t provide any explanation for the link, the authors speculate that greener neighborhoods may reduce stress, encourage exercise, and have less noise and air pollution—all potential mental health factors. “This study is tremendously important,” says Kelly Lambert, a University of Richmond neuroscientist who wasn’t involved in the research. “It suggests that something as simple as better city planning could have profound impacts on the mental health and well-being of all of us.”
3-8-19 Why dads need time with baby
Nothing gets Norwegians squawking like a change to the family leave plan, said Arnt Maaso, Ole Morten Knudsen, and Vegar Pettersen. The government wants to rejigger the 46 weeks of paid time off new parents are allowed. Currently, a dad can choose to take 10 of those weeks; the mom then gets the rest. But the new system would give 15 weeks of paid leave each to the mother and father, and the couple can divvy up the remaining 16 weeks as they see fit. Predictably, women are complaining that their own leave would be reduced. But as dads, we believe that giving fathers more time off would help “children, family, and society.” During our leaves, we bonded with our infants and gained confidence in caring for them properly. Years later, we were much closer to being equal parenting partners than our colleagues who ceded their leave to their wives. We were often the parents who were called to pick up a sick child from kindergarten, and we felt no hardship looking after the kids when mom had to work late. If women are going to have equal career opportunities, it’s essential that “these burdens—and joys—are shared with fathers.” Most importantly, we are modeling the kind of egalitarian society we want our sons and daughters to see as normal.
3-8-19 Microwaved grapes make fireballs, and scientists now know why
Plasma forms because the fruit is the right size to trap the devices’ electromagnetic waves. Here’s a recipe for homemade plasma: Cut a grape in half, leaving the two sections connected at one end by the grape’s thin skin. Heat the fruit in a microwave for a few seconds. Then, boom: From the grape erupts a small plasma fireball — a hot mixture of electrons and electrically charged atoms, or ions. This trick has been floating around the internet for decades, and previous explanations of the effect have focused on the importance of the connecting skin. But two whole grapes bumped up against one another do the same thing, as do similarly sized waterlogged beads called hydrogels, researchers report in the March 5 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The team determined that the grapes act as resonators for the microwave radiation, much like a flute resonates with sound waves. A single grape is just the right size that the electromagnetic waves get trapped within the fruit, bouncing back and forth. Using thermal imaging, the researchers showed that a hot spot appears in the grape’s center, as a result of the trapped radiation. But if two grapes sit next to each other, that hot spot forms where the grapes touch, and salts within the grape skin are ionized and released, producing a plasma flare. The effect makes for a spectacular kitchen fireworks display, but one you may not want to try at home — it could damage your microwave.
3-8-19 ‘Skeleton Keys’ unlocks the history and mysteries of bones
A self-described ‘fossil fanatic’ surveys science and culture. At this very moment, voracious cells are eating away at your bones. Not to worry, though — that’s just a normal part of bone maintenance in healthy adults. The formation of new bone cells balances out the removal of old bone cells. Although bone-making cells rev up when a bone breaks or disease sets in, eventually bone-eating cells kick in to make sure a bone doesn’t grow out of control. Bones as active tissues, not fixed structures, is just one of the fascinating topics that writer Brian Switek explores in Skeleton Keys. The microscopic structure of our bones isn’t the only thing that changes throughout our lives; the number of bones changes too. Humans are born with about 270 bones that over the course of our youth and adolescence grow and fuse into 206 bones, give or take a few. And while some of those bones can provide clear evidence of whether a person was male or female, there are, contrary to what we see in many crime dramas, no anatomical characteristics that conclusively indicate a person’s race or country of origin. Beyond basic biology and modern forensics, Skeleton Keys chronicles bone through the ages, from the origins of the precursor of bone in fish more than 450 million years ago to the role of bone in modern paleontology and anthropology. Here, Switek, a self-described “fossil fanatic” who has written three books about fossils (SN: 9/5/15, p. 28; 5/4/13, p. 34; 1/1/11, p. 34), puts his expertise to work. As he explains, the physical size and shape of bones help scientists identify what type of creature once hosted those tissues, what the animal looked like and possibly how it moved. Bones are also biological time capsules, often rife with chemical clues that can reveal what an animal ate and where it may have lived as it was growing up.
3-7-19 How helpful gut microbes send signals that they are friends, not foes
The finding in mice may help explain why a body’s immune system doesn’t kill beneficial bugs. Some gut bacteria really put the hooks into their host — but in a good way. Observations in mice show that certain filamentous microbes use a hooklike appendage to send messages that researchers believe are aimed at preventing immune cells from attacking the microbes. The finding, reported in the March 8 Science, could help explain how an immune system distinguishes friendly gut bacteria from deadly pathogens, says microbiologist Primrose Freestone of the University of Leicester in England, who was not involved in the research. Because the gut provides an easy gateway for microbes to infect a person or other animal, the intestine is replete with immune cells ready to attack. Researchers have closely examined how immune cells such as T cells recognize and attack pathogens like E. coli. But it’s unclear why these same immune cells don’t kill the trillions of gut microbes that help with digestion and keep people healthy. Immunologist Ivaylo Ivanov at Columbia University and his colleagues examined segmented filamentous bacteria, a group of gut microbes found in the intestines of many animals including mice, fish and humans. These symbiotic bacteria have a hooklike appendage called a holdfast that attaches them to cells on the gut’s wall. Microscopic 3-D images of holdfasts from more than 200 individual bacteria cells revealed small bubbles, or vesicles, emerging from the hook’s sides and tips and budding off within the intestinal wall.
3-7-19 A pill that mimics natural antibodies could fight many kinds of flu
When the next flu pandemic comes, we may be better prepared. A pharmaceutical company has developed a conventional drug that mimics the effect of antibodies that are effective against a wide range of flu viruses. Conventional drugs are cheaper and easier to make and store than antibodies, and can be taken in pill form.. Mice that were give 25 times the normal lethal dose of one flu virus survived after taking the drug, which is known only as JNJ4796. It was also effective in tests on human cells grown in a dish. The hope is that this antibody-mimicking strategy could lead to new treatments for many viral diseases, not just flu. When we are infected by a virus, our immune system defends us by producing antibodies, which are proteins that bind to the virus and prevent them from infecting cells. But it takes days for our bodies to ramp up production, by which time people can become seriously ill. Injecting antibodies can help treat viral infections, but there are several problems. Firstly, antibodies are large proteins that are expensive to make and have to be injected directly into the blood. Secondly, flu antibodies usually are specific to a single strain. So an antibody treatment for the flu making people ill one year, will be useless the next year. But biologists recently discovered antibodies that work against a wide variety of flu viruses because they bind to regions of the virus that seldom change. Several companies are now developing treatments that consist of these “broadly neutralising” antibodies, some of which are already being tested in people seriously ill with flu. But these antibodies are still hard to produce and have to be injected. So Maria van Dongen of pharma company Janssen in the Netherlands and colleagues set out to mimic their effect with a small molecule.
3-6-19 Meet the super-smeller who can diagnose Parkinson's at a sniff
WHEN Joy Milne’s husband Les started to give off a strange musky scent, she was none too happy. She has always had a keen sense of smell, and this was unmissable. “It was almost like a slap in the face,” she says. “I didn’t like it.” Les was adamant he was looking after himself properly, and when no one else picked up on the smell, Joy let the matter lie. It was only 12 years later, when Les was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, that she realised the magnitude of what she had noticed. Joy, who lives in Perth, UK, is a super-smeller with an almost supernatural ability to sense odours that most people don’t perceive. Perhaps this is because she experiences synaesthesia, a neurological condition in which different kinds of sensory information become mixed-up. That means she can visualise the flow of smells and even experience them as sensations. “Some smells make my back go cold,” she says. She has to avoid the supermarket aisle with soaps and make-up because it is too overpowering. In the same way that a wine taster might train their nose to recognise the different aromas of the drink, she thinks that her work as a nurse attuned her sense of smell to different medical conditions. Now, retired after decades of vivid olfaction, her incredible nose is helping find new ways to diagnose diseases. This unusual career path has its origins in 1994, when Les was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease aged only 45. This condition destroys dopamine-producing cells in the brain, leading to tremors and difficulty moving. When the couple went to a support group for people with Parkinson’s, Joy noticed something strange: Les wasn’t the only one with the greasy smell. Everyone else with Parkinson’s seemed to have it too. Under the pretext of handing out cups of tea, Joy took a few good sniffs to confirm her suspicions. She became convinced that the condition has a unique smell – the one that she had noticed on Les more than a decade earlier. “I was smelling Parkinson’s in the whole room,” she says.
3-6-19 FDA has approved the first ketamine-based antidepressant
Taken as a nasal spray, Spravato may quickly help people with hard-to-treat depression. Doctors have a new weapon in the fight against particularly pernicious depression: a drug based on the powerful anesthetic ketamine. The drug — called Spravato and developed by Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc. — was approved on March 5 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a treatment for severely depressed people who haven’t responded to two courses of other treatments. The first ketamine-based antidepressant, Spravato is a nasal spray that must be delivered in a doctor’s office, and is intended to be used in addition to an oral antidepressant. Ketamine is an anesthetic that’s been in use for decades; it is also an illicit drug, known as “Special K” or “Vitamin K,” that can create out-of-body psychedelic hallucinations. Other antidepressants often take weeks to kick in, but ketamine and related compounds work within hours or days for some people. Some patients experienced the effects of Spravato in two days, a clinical trial found. Ketamine is a mixture of two mirror image molecules. Spravato is composed of one of those molecules: esketamine. It’s not yet clear how esketamine compares with ketamine in its ability to ease depression. Other researchers are testing the antidepressant effects of other ketamine relatives, as well as one of ketamine’s breakdown products (SN: 5/28/16, p. 13). And promising early research has led some doctors to begin administering ketamine to people who have shown no improvement from other treatments for severe depression. But large clinical trials and a deeper understanding of side effects are still needed.
3-7-19 Nanosponges sop up toxins and help repair tissues
Tiny particles coated with cell membranes can do more than deliver drugs. To take his fledgling lab to new heights, Liangfang Zhang hatched a plan that he considered brilliant in its simplicity. It involved procedures that many of his peers found a little out there. But if he could make his idea work, it would clear a major hurdle to safely ferry therapies through the body on nanoparticles one-thousandth the width of a human hair. Yet back in 2010, the young nanoengineer could not convince the National Institutes of Health, the main funder of U.S. biomedical research, to support the project. Zhang applied for funding four or five times over several years, to no avail. “It felt quite lonely,” he says. “But I just felt this is very unique stuff. And it may become a big thing.” Pulling funds from other projects and from the start-up package he received to set up his lab at the University of California, San Diego, Zhang did the experiments for his breakthrough paper, published in 2011 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He and coworkers created a new class of nanoparticles, made from carbon-containing polymers, that could slip through blood vessels in a mouse without triggering an immune reaction. While immune responses are important for killing disease-causing pathogens, the same reactions are a nuisance when they clear out molecules made to deliver lifesaving drugs.
3-6-19 An HIV cure may one day be possible
The cases of three people who are HIV-free following bone marrow transplants suggests genetics could be the answer to long-term elimination of the virus. THE news this week that two people may have had HIV eliminated from their body after receiving bone marrow transplants to treat cancer suggests it may be possible to cure the condition. This takes the tally of people who are HIV-free after such treatment to three (see “A third person may have become HIV-free after a bone marrow transplant”). Each person received bone marrow from a donor who has a genetic mutation that makes them resistant to HIV. But such a transplant isn’t an option for most people – it is a risky procedure and only used as a last resort for cancer treatment. The discovery that the virus can be wiped out by rebooting a person’s immune system with genetically resistant cells hints there may be ways to reproduce the effect with fewer risks. Some groups are working on using gene therapy and gene editing to give people’s own immune cells the HIV-resistant mutation. The first attempts to treat people in this way haven’t been successful, but the approach may improve with further development and better gene-editing methods. He Jiankui, the fired researcher in China who announced the world’s first gene-edited babies last year, certainly seems to have found the prospect of genetic approaches for preventing HIV appealing. It was the same HIV resistance gene that he chose to edit in his controversial trial. Any new approach for wiping out this virus will need to carry very little risk to be worth it. While the infection used to almost always be fatal, people who are HIV positive and have access to antiviral drugs now have near-normal lifespans.
3-6-19 Rabbit bones suggest Neanderthals were better hunters than we thought
Neanderthals were better hunters than we thought. Fossils suggest they were hunting rabbits in Western Europe thousands of years ago. Eugene Morin at Trent University in Canada and colleagues examined fossilised rabbit remains from eight sites in the north-western Mediterranean region. They found evidence of burning, which was probably from cooking, as well as cut marks on the meat-bearing bones. Neanderthals were the most likely rabbit hunters at the majority of the sites. “It changes the perspective on Neanderthals,” says Morin. “Before that, most researchers would have said that Neanderthals were exclusively large game hunters.” Hunting quick and small game has a poorer calorie return given its costs, and the consensus was that this was rare until the Upper Palaeolithic era 40,000 years ago, around when modern humans arrived in Europe. Food shortages probably drove Neanderthals to broaden their diet, although finding archaeological evidence of their hunting techniques is challenging. The tip of a projectile point in a bone can shed light on some hunting methods, but the string and roots used to snare and trap animals don’t preserve well. There were very few infant rabbit bones at the sites, which may suggest that the inhabitants weren’t flushing rabbits out of their warrens, and instead hunting them individually. While larger animals such as bison probably still made up the bulk of the Neanderthals’ diet, the finding shows that their diets weren’t uniform and they adapted to different environments across different regions of Europe, says Morin.
3-6-19 Hominids may have hunted rabbits as far back as 400,000 years ago
Small game was on the menu surprisingly early for members of the human genus in Western Europe. In Europe, Stone Age hominids began adding small, fast animals to their menus much earlier than previously thought, scientists say. Now-extinct members of the human genus, Homo, hunted rabbits and, to a lesser extent, hares in southern France and probably other Mediterranean parts of Europe by around 400,000 years ago, researchers report online March 6 in Science Advances. Hunters also bagged larger creatures such as wild goats and deer. The new finding may highlight the flexibility and innovativeness of these ancient relatives of humans. That dietary shift to smaller animals away from eating primarily large game emerged long before a previously recognized change in ancient humans’ eating habits, concludes a team led by paleoanthropologist Eugène Morin of Trent University in Peterborough, Canada. In the later transition, Stone Age people dramatically broadened what they ate, including a wide variety of small animals, starting around 36,000 years ago. Morin’s group studied 21 sets of animal fossils and stone tools previously excavated at eight sites in southern France. All but one collection included large numbers of fossil leporids, the family of rabbits and hares. Cuts made by stone tools, likely during butchery, appeared on leporid remains from 17 fossil sets. At the oldest site, Terra Amata, about half of 205 identified animal bones from a 400,000-year-old sediment layer belonged to leporids. Other small-game sites studied by the researchers dated to as recently as around 60,000 years ago.
3-6-19 Brexit, 10,000 BC: The untold story of how Britain first left Europe
“FOG in Channel; Continent Cut Off”. This apocryphal newspaper headline supposedly illustrates the insularity of the British. Weather-wise, nothing could be further from the truth today, as I peer from a gun emplacement atop the White Cliffs of Dover. The view is stunning. Dead ahead is the bulbous headland of Cap Gris-Nez, the closest tip of France. A few degrees to the left, a sharp eye can make out the distinctive silhouette of Calais Town Hall. Britain is undoubtedly an island, just not by very much. Not even 21 miles separate England from France here at their closest approach – 33 kilometres measured in suspect units from across the sea. The concrete structure I’ve wormed my way into dates from the last time that distance seemed perilously short, when German forces massed on the French coast during the second world war. The English Channel carries huge historical and psychological clout. Yet as little as 10,000 years ago, you could have walked across a dry valley in front of me and been in Calais by teatime having hardly got your feet wet. The full story of how that changed is eye-popping – and we have only recently begun to unearth it. As the political shenanigans surrounding the UK’s decision to leave the European Union continue, this is the story of Britain’s original exit from Europe – a Brexit drama in three acts.About 450,000 years ago. A ribbon of land stretches into the distance. To the right, a drop plunges perhaps 150 or 200 metres to a plain below. To the left, lapping almost to our toes, are the waters of a huge glacial lake. Small icebergs bob on its surface. We are standing on a vast natural dam. It is cold. Very cold. Half a million years ago – 50,000 or so years before the scene just depicted – there was no sea where the White Cliffs of Dover are today. There weren’t even any cliffs. There were just chalk hills arcing eastward and slightly south, from present-day England into present-day France. The main axis of this Weald-Artois ridge is still visible on both sides of the English Channel today, in the Downs of Kent and Sussex, and the chalk hills of the Pas-de-Calais.
3-6-19 Exclusive: Brain zap therapy for aggression to be tested on prisoners
ZAPPING parts of the brain with electrical current has been found to boost memory and may relieve depression. Now psychologists are planning a new test of its powers. This month, transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS) will be tested in a prison in Spain, as part of controversial efforts to see if it can calm violent urges. “The study is to try to find out if TDCS has an effect on different assessments of aggression,” says Andrés Molero-Chamizo at the University of Huelva, who is leading the project. “It could help to keep order inside a prison.” The experiment will take place in Huelva prison, which has seen a series of violent incidents in recent years, including an attack on the governor in 2017. But Molero-Chamizo says the TDCS work isn’t a response to that, and if the technique works, it could have applications outside prisons too, as a “simple, cheap, non-pharmacological way to control aggressiveness”. The study will involve a psychologist strapping two electrodes to the foreheads of prisoners, including at least a dozen men serving a murder sentence. For each person, the current will be turned on for 15 minutes, on three successive days. Before getting started, the participants will be asked if they agree with statements including “once in a while, I can’t control the urge to strike another person” and “I sometimes feel like a powder keg ready to explode”. They will then answer the same questions after the last stimulation session. Molero-Chamizo says it was much easier to get permission to work with the prisoners than with medical patients and students. The prisoners have all volunteered for the study, which has been approved by the Spanish government, prison officials and a university ethics committee.
3-6-19 MMR vaccine does not cause autism, study once again confirms
A STUDY of 650,000 children born in Denmark between 1999 and 2010 has confirmed yet again that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR)vaccine doesn’t increase the risk of getting autism. Of the children, 6500 were diagnosed with autism. Those given the MMR vaccine were no more likely to be diagnosed with autism than children who didn’t have the vaccine. The study also didn’t find any link with other vaccinations, or with vaccines being given at a particular age (Annals of Internal Medicine, doi.org/c29w). The study adds to the already abundant evidence that vaccines are safe. Despite this evidence, groundless claims about vaccines continue to spread. Vaccination rates have fallen in many countries and there has been a resurgence in measles – one of the most contagious known viruses.
3-5-19 A temporary low-calorie diet may reduce inflammatory bowel disease
A low-calorie diet may help alleviate the symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). That’s according to experiments with mice with IBD who were fed a low-calorie, low-protein diet and had reduced intestinal inflammation and a regenerated gut as a result. In humans, IBD includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, which both cause inflammation of the intestines. They have been associated with a combination of genetic and environmental factors, including a diet high in animal protein. Valter Longo and his colleagues at the University of Southern California fed 18 mice with IBD symptoms a reduced-calorie diet of plant-based foods over four days. This fasting-mimicking diet increased stem cells in the gut, a sign of regeneration, and also reversed inflammation-associated shrinking of the colon. A second group of 11 mice on a water-only fasting diet also showed some gut improvements, but didn’t experience any reversal of inflammation symptoms. In both groups, the team found an increase in the gut bacteria Lactobacillus, and that transplants of this microbe reversed IBD symptoms. “A number of studies indicate that it is protective against IBD in mice and humans,” says Longo. He believes the low-calorie diet helped to repopulate the gut with Lactobacillus, which is responsible for improving symptoms. The fasting-mimicking diet has previously been trialled in people without IBD. “We know it works well to reduce inflammation and the associated increase in white blood cells in humans,” says Longo, so it has the potential to be effective against Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
3-5-19 US teen who defied parents over vaccine warns of misinformation
A teenager who made headlines for getting vaccinated despite his family's wishes has testified about his experience to US lawmakers. Ethan Lindenberger, from Ohio, sought immunisations aged 18 after turning to the internet for advice. Federal data suggests the proportion of US children under two not being immunised has quadrupled since 2001. Doctors at the hearing blamed online misinformation and discredited science for scaring parents away from vaccines. Mr Lindenberger, who is still a senior in high school, spoke on Tuesday at the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions alongside four doctors who are experts in the field. He said much of his mother's opposition to routine vaccines came from fear they could cause side-effects like brain damage or autism. In 1998, a study by a British doctor Andrew Wakefield incorrectly linked the MMR (Measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine to autism. His research has since been completely discredited and Mr Wakefield has been struck off - but the theory has endured within the global anti-vaccination community. All four doctors at Tuesday's hearing echoed that there was "absolutely no evidence" that exists which supports the link. This is also affirmed in new Danish research released on Tuesday. The study examined 650,000 children over 10 years and categorically concludes that MMR does not increase the risk of autism or trigger it in those susceptible. Mr Lindenbenger, doctors and members of Congress at the hearing all pointed out the internet fuels the spread of misinformation. "My mother would turn to anti-vax groups online and social media rather than health officials and critical sources," the teenager told the hearing.
3-5-19 A third person may have become HIV-free after a bone marrow transplant
Following news of a man in the UK who has been free of HIV since his cancer treatment, a similar case has been reported by researchers who treated a patient in Germany. Together, they add to evidence that it may be possible to cure HIV. The virus infects cells of the immune system, which are made in the bone marrow. A man known as the “Berlin patient” was the first person to become HIV-free after cancer treatment, back in 2007. To treat his leukaemia – a cancer of the immune system – he was given a treatment that involved killing nearly all his immune cells with radiotherapy or drugs, and then replacing them with cells from a donor. This donor was naturally resistant to HIV, thanks to a rare but natural mutation in a gene called CCR5. Since then, no one else had had HIV eliminated from their body in the same way, until a second case was announced on Monday. This person, known as the London patient, was given bone marrow from a donor with the CCR5 mutation as a treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, another immune cell cancer. He was advised to stop taking the antiviral drugs that keep the virus in check about a year afterwards. Eighteen months later, the virus hasn’t returned. A possible third case was then announced today, at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Seattle. Biopsies from the gut and lymph nodes of this “Düsseldorf patient” show no infectious HIV after three months off antiviral drugs – only old fragments of viral genes that wouldn’t be able to multiply, says Annemarie Wensing of University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands, who worked on this case. This is just like the Berlin and London patients, she says.
3-5-19 A second HIV patient has gone into remission after a stem cell transplant
The stem cells came from a donor unable to make a protein needed by the deadly virus. For only the second time in recorded medical history, a man’s HIV infection has gone into remission. The patient — positive for the virus that causes AIDS since 2003 — had received a blood stem cell transplant in 2016 as treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system. The blood stem cells came from a donor with a mutation that makes cells resistant to an HIV infection. Subsequent testing over 12 months showed the patient’s HIV had fallen to undetectable levels. So 16 months after the procedure, the patient stopped taking antiretroviral medication under medical supervision. He has remained in remission ever since, with HIV levels measuring less than one copy per milliliter of plasma, researchers report online in Nature March 5. Although it’s too early to call the patient cured, “it’s pointing in that direction,” says coauthor Ravindra Gupta, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Cambridge. Nearly 37 million people worldwide were living with HIV in 2017, with 1.8 million people newly infected that year, according to UNAIDS. Antiretroviral therapy, or ART, has helped many patients live longer by reducing virus levels in the blood, but the drugs need to be taken for life. During an HIV infection, the virus ambushes immune cells called T cells and makes copies of itself. To enter the T cell, HIV first binds to a cell surface protein called CD4 and then grabs onto another surface protein. Most HIV binds to one called CCR5, although some HIV variants grab one called CXCR4 — or are capable of using either protein.
3-5-19 A CRISPR spin-off causes unintended typos in DNA
Gene editors that target DNA bases may not be as safe as thought. Even the best editor sometimes introduces typos. That’s true whether the editor is human or a version of the much-heralded gene-editing tool CRISPR. One type of CRISPR gene editor that changes individual DNA bases, rather than cutting DNA, introduces more unwanted mutations than expected in mouse embryos and rice plants, researchers report. Those mistakes occurred in places where the tool wasn’t supposed to make changes. Another tested base editor, however, didn’t make the undesirable edits. The results were described in two studies published online February 28 in Science. Researchers hope to use CRISPR base editors to make improvements to crops or correct genetic diseases in people one day. But the new findings suggest that some base editors still have challenges to overcome before being safe for use. It is necessary to rigorously put the editors through their paces, says chemical biologist David Liu, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Harvard University. His team originally created the base editors tested in the two studies, but he was not involved in either study. “The community needs these worst-case scenario pressure tests so we can make sure there’s a good margin of safety when these agents do enter clinical trials,” he says. CRISPR/Cas9 is a molecular scissors that cuts DNA at precise locations. Researchers have used the gene-editing tool, introduced in 2012, to squash mosquito populations in the lab, tame ground cherries into easier-to-grow crops and alter countless other animals and plants. And last year, a scientist in China reported that he had edited DNA in two babies using CRISPR (SN: 12/22/18, p. 20). But researchers are concerned that the tool is still not safe enough to use in people.
3-5-19 Landmark HIV case may be the second person ever to be ‘cured’
A second person may have had his HIV infection wiped out after receiving a bone marrow transplant to treat his cancer. Until now there had only been one previous such case, a man known as the “Berlin patient”, who received a similar cancer treatment over a decade ago. Such treatment can’t be used for people with HIV who don’t have cancer, because bone marrow transplants carry considerable risks and are only used as a last resort. But the fact that the approach seems to have worked for a second time suggests the Berlin patient was no fluke, and could point the way to other strategies for a cure, says Ravindra Gupta at the University of Cambridge. About a year after the “London patient” received his bone marrow transplant, he was advised to stop taking his antiviral medicines. It is now 18 months since then and there has been no return of the virus. Although it is too early to call it a cure, Gupta says it would be considered so after three to four years. “The signs are promising,” he says. HIV infects cells of the immune system, which are made in the bone marrow. Although it was once nearly always fatal, today people can take antiviral drugs that stop HIV from multiplying. These eliminate the virus from blood and sexual fluids, but small amounts hide out in dormant immune cells in organs such as the spleen. If someone stops taking their antiviral drugs, the levels of virus in their blood go back up again, and they would eventually die. The Berlin patient was treated in 2007. Diagnosed with leukaemia, a cancer of immune cells, he had a bone marrow transplant. This involves killing nearly all of someone’s immune cells with radiotherapy or toxic drugs, then replacing them with cells from a donor. His doctors chose a donor who was naturally resistant to catching HIV because of a mutation in a gene called CCR5, which is found in a small minority of people in Western Europe and is even rarer elsewhere. Now Gupta and his colleagues appear to have repeated this feat. The London patient had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, another form of cancer in immune cells. The team found him a bone marrow donor with the CCR5 mutation.
3-5-19 Animal with an anus that comes and goes could reveal how ours evolved
A jellyfish-like creature has a neat trick that makes it unique among animals: its anus forms only when it needs to defecate, then disappears without a trace. “That is the really spectacular finding here,” says Sidney Tamm of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, who made the discovery. “There is no documentation of a transient anus in any other animals that I know of.” Tamm thinks the discovery might represent an intermediate stage in evolution. In some simple animals, such as jellyfish, the gut has only one opening, which functions as the mouth and anus. It has been known since 1850 that comb jellies – which superficially resemble jellyfish, but belong to a separate group called ctenophores – have a through-gut, with a separate mouth and anus. Some even have more than one anus. But when Tamm studied the warty comb jelly (Mnemiopsis leidyi), he could not find its anus. Only when the animals are actually defecating does a tiny opening appear – and it disappears again straight afterwards. “It is not visible when the animal is not pooping,” says Tamm. “There’s no trace under the microscope. It’s invisible to me.” His observations show there is no permanent connection between the gut and the rear of the body. Instead, as waste accumulates, part of the gut starts to balloon out until it touches the outer layer, or epidermis. The gut then fuses with the epidermis, forming an anal opening. Once excretion is complete, the process is reversed and the anus vanishes.
3-5-19 Ripples race in the brain as memories are recalled
People were more likely to remember a word if their brains buzzed with a spike of activity. Fast waves of activity ripple in the brain a half second before a person calls up a memory. The finding, published in the March 1 Science, hint that these brain waves might be a key part of a person’s ability to remember. The results come from a study of 14 people with epilepsy who had electrodes placed on their brains as part of their treatment. Those electrodes also allowed scientists to monitor neural activity while the people learned pairs of words. One to three minutes after learning the pairs, people were given one word and asked to name its partner. As participants remembered the missing word, neuroscientist and neurosurgeon Kareem Zaghloul and his colleagues caught glimpses of fast brain waves rippling across parts of the brain at a rate of around 100 per second. These ripples appeared nearly simultaneously in two brain regions — the medial temporal lobe, which is known to be important for memory, and the temporal association cortex, which has a role in language. When a person got the answer wrong, or didn’t answer at all, these coordinated ripples were less likely to be present, the researchers found. “We see this happening, and then we see people remember,” says Zaghloul, of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. While recalling a memory, “you mentally jump back in time and re-experience it,” Zaghloul says. Just after the ripples, the researchers saw telltale signs of that mental time travel — an echo of brain activity similar to the brain activity when the memory of the word pair was first formed. The finding that ripples precede that neural echo is “the most beautiful part of the story,” says neuroscientist György Buzsáki of New York University, because it lends heft to the idea that the brain waves are involved in retrieving memories.
3-4-19 A gel made from urea has molecules that resemble friendship bracelets
A gel made from the main compound in urine looks just like a friendship bracelet. It is formed of minuscule fibres that spontaneously form braids and could be used to engineer new medicines. Jonathan Steed at Durham University in the UK and his colleagues created the gel using urea. On a molecular level, the gel assembles itself into four-stranded braids, in two different configurations. The simplest four-stranded braid is a quadruple helix – similar to the double helix of DNA, but with four strands winding in parallel. The other is in the form of two double helices weaving in and out of one another. “We’ve designed a toy molecule that we can watch forming these rather beautiful braids,” says Steed. Although their molecule was engineered, braids like this can appear naturally. For example, in mad cow disease, fibres of amyloid proteins form braids and clump together. The team has used similar urea-based gels to produce pharmaceuticals with different properties. “We crystallise new drug molecules within them and sometimes find different crystal packing arrangements,” says Steed. The different resulting structures can alter the drug’s solubility and how much of it reaches a person’s bloodstream after it is taken. The new molecule is stickier than gels the researchers have previously produced and may help to better control the properties of the molecules they design. “You might imagine a situation where, for example, you can braid fibres in one way and you get something which is ketchup-like and you can braid them another way and you get something that’s like a rubber ball,” says Steed. “If you can produce different microstructures with the same molecule, then you can get materials with different properties.”
3-4-19 A 2,000-year-old tattoo tool is the oldest in western North America
Made of cactus spines, the artifact has been sitting in storage since 1972. While taking an inventory of stored artifacts excavated in Utah in 1972, archaeologist Andrew Gillreath-Brown thought he recognized one: a tattooing tool. That previously overlooked find dates to nearly 2,000 years ago, making it the oldest known tattoo implement from western North America. Until now, several similar tattoo implements from the U.S. Southwest dated to no more than around 900 years ago, Gillreath-Brown and his colleagues report online February 28 in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. The long-unnoticed tool consists of a wooden handle bound at the end with split leaves of the yucca plant that hold in place two cactus spines, each stained black at its tip. Microscope and chemical analyses determined that the stains likely contain carbon, a common element in ancient and modern tattooing. Experiments with replicas of the Utah artifact determined that the instruments could incise lines of charcoal-based ink onto fresh pig skin. Ancestors of Pueblo people, who lived around the same time in the Bears Ears region in Utah where the tool was found, wielded the implement at a time when foraging was giving way to farming, the researchers say. Few examples of tattoo tools have been discovered. Pigment-stained bone needles and other items from a tattooing kit excavated in 1985 from a Native American grave in Tennessee date to between 1,600 and 3,500 years ago, says Gillreath-Brown, of Washington State University in Pullman. Obsidian flakes unearthed in the Solomon Islands, east of Papua New Guinea, were used to create tattoos around 3,000 years ago. The oldest known tattoos have been identified on Ötzi the Iceman’s 5,250-year-old body (SN: 1/23/16, p. 5).
3-4-19 Breast milk contains fungi which may help seed a baby's microbiome
Bacteria aren’t the only microorganisms passed from mothers to babies in breast milk – fungi are transferred too. This may play an important role in kickstarting the colony of microorganisms inside an infant’s gut, which form part of a healthy digestive system. The excitement around the impact of breast milk on microorganisms in the gut, called the microbiota, has largely focused on bacteria, with little known about fungi. But fungi could be important to the development of allergies or disease later in life. Maria Carmen Collado at the Institute of Agrochemistry and Food Technology in Spain and her colleagues had already found fungi in the breast milk of women in Spain. So they widened the net to include women living in South Africa, China and Finland as well. They found fungi in the breast milk of all 80 women included in the study. The most prevalent was Malassezia, a genus of fungi found in oil-producing glands on skin and hair, followed by Davidiella, a genus of fungi also found in the vagina. Regional differences suggest environmental factors such as diet or geography play a part in the fungal composition of breast milk, says Collado. This is important, because mothers transfer a unique mix of bacteria and fungi to their newborns, she says. Saccharomyces boulardii is a fungus currently given to infants to reduce the severity of diarrhoea. Collado hopes her team’s findings could open the door to other fungi that could be used to improve infant gut health.
3-4-19 Welfare reforms may have hurt some single moms’ teenage kids
Policies need to provide after-school and other support while parents work, researchers say. Welfare reforms in the 1990s were meant to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty. But they may have had an unanticipated side effect. A new study suggests the reforms contributed to a rise in problematic teen behaviors, such as skipping school, getting in fights and using drugs. These problems were especially pronounced in boys, researchers report in a paper posted online February 11 on the National Bureau of Economic Research website. The reforms set up work requirements for parents and put a five-year cap on benefits. In states where welfare reform had been in place for at least 12 months, the 10th- and 12th-grade sons of poor, single moms with a high school education or less were 7 to 21 percent more likely than boys with poor, similarly educated married moms to skip school, damage property or get in a fight. These boys were also 6 percent more likely to use drugs or alcohol, economist Nancy Reichman and her colleagues found. Girls were less affected, but those with poor, single moms were about 7 percent more likely than girls in the other group to skip school and 4 percent more likely to use drugs or alcohol. Due to the way data is collected — for instance, the single moms were used as a proxy for families affected by welfare reform — and the probable influence of other factors, the teens’ behavioral problems can’t be definitively pinned on changes in the welfare program. But economists suspect that policy makers’ failure to address how welfare reform would alter the family dynamic — such as where the kids should go after school and how parenting behaviors change when mom’s time gets squeezed — probably plays a role.
3-2-19 The dark side of creativity
Like all skills, it can be used for good or bad. Suppose you forgot it was your partner's birthday, but you know that they would appreciate the smallest of gestures, say a bouquet. It's late at night and no florists are open. The cemetery on your way home has recently had a funeral, and you walk across the site and pick up a good-looking bouquet of roses from someone's grave. You then head home, and the flowers are happily received by your partner. Would you say that you hurt anyone? This isn't so much a moral dilemma as it is a creative misbehavior. More specifically, it is an instance of the dark side of creativity — the side that few people acknowledge or talk about. Variously referred to as malevolent or negative, dark creativity uses the creative process to do something socially unappealing and guided by self-interest. You might not intend to harm someone else, yet harm is often a byproduct of your actions. In the instance above, you found an original solution (stealing flowers from a graveyard) to a problem (upset partner) that was effective (happy partner). That is what makes up the crux of creativity — originality and effectiveness in behavior. But can we call such an act truly creative? For one thing, it violates moral codes of conduct (stealing); for another, it involves deception (omitting the truth about where you got the flowers). Laypersons and academics alike have largely viewed creativity as a positive force, a notion challenged by the philosopher and educator Robert McLaren of California State University, Fullerton, in 1993. McLaren proposed that creativity had a dark side, and that viewing it without a social or moral lens would lead to limited understanding. As time went on, newer concepts — negative and malevolent creativity — included conceiving original ways to cheat on tests or doing purposeful harm to others, for instance, innovating new ways to execute terrorist attacks. Take a situation where you want to go to an event but the tickets are sold out. A creative person predisposed to deception and moral flexibility might come up with a solution involving bribing guards or pretending to be an organizer at the event. On the other hand, another creative individual with a more positive mindset might suggest creating a social media campaign, for or against the event, to gain traction and recognition, and subsequent entry into the event.
3-1-19 The anti-vaxxers’ impact
After being officially eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, measles is making a comeback. Officials blame low vaccination rates.
- Who has been affected? This year there have been six confirmed measles outbreaks in 10 states, including New York, Texas, and Washington state.
- Why are high vaccination rates important? If enough people have their shots, diseases can’t spread as easily, and that protects people who can’t be vaccinated themselves—including very young babies, people with vaccine allergies, and those with compromised immune systems.
- Why the objection to vaccines? No major religion specifically prohibits vaccination, but some deeply religious people view it as unnatural or interfering with God’s will.
- Are their fears legitimate? There is overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccines are safe and effective. A small number of children develop side effects such as a mild rash or soreness; stronger reactions are extremely rare.
- How common are such beliefs? Only 2 percent of kids nationwide go unvaccinated for nonmedical reasons. But a much larger number of parents delay or skip some vaccines because of their fears about safety.
- >What’s being done? Eleven states have passed laws tightening requirements for vaccine exemptions. California passed one of the strictest laws in the country in 2015, abolishing all nonmedical exemptions, after a measles outbreak that began in Disneyland sickened dozens of unvaccinated children.
- Vaccines and the internet: Social media has become one of the main sources of vaccine misinformation. A study in the United Kingdom by the Royal Society for Public Health found that half of all parents with young children in the country were exposed to misleading information about vaccines on social media.
3-1-19 A successful flu vaccine
If it seems like fewer people have been sick this winter, there’s a good reason. In its first assessment of this season’s flu vaccine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that those who had the shot reduced their chances of needing medical care for flu by 47 percent. That’s a significant improvement on last year’s vaccine, which had an estimated efficacy of just 36 percent—a big factor in why last winter was one of the deadliest flu seasons in decades. This year’s shot is proving particularly effective among children, one of the most vulnerable groups, with a success rate of 62 percent. Vaccines differ year by year because scientists have to make educated guesses before the flu season about what strains and mutations of the virus will spread the most. The most prominent strain this year is H1N1, which is less severe than the H3N2 strain that dominated last year. Though relatively mild, the current flu season has so far resulted in 15,900 deaths, compared with about 80,000 total last year. “Flu is still increasing in lots of different places,” the CDC’s Brendan Flannery tells The Washington Post. “It’s still a concern.”
3-1-19 'Vampire' transfusions dangerous
The Food and Drug Administration has issued a stark warning to people who think infusions of young adults’ blood will keep them young and healthy, denouncing the “treatments” as ineffective and potentially dangerous. Clinics in several states claim infusions of youthful plasma can mitigate the worst effects of aging and such illnesses as dementia, Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis. But the FDA says there is no evidence to support these claims, and that the procedure itself has “infectious, allergic, respiratory, and cardiovascular risks.” “Simply put,” says FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, “we’re concerned that some patients are being preyed upon by unscrupulous actors.” The warning appears to have had an immediate effect, reports NBCNews.com: Ambrosia, a California-based clinic that charged patients $8,000 or more for transfusions, has announced it is no longer providing the treatment.
3-1-19 Weed killer’s link to cancer
A new analysis has concluded that exposure to a chemical found in the most widely used weed killer in the world raises cancer risk by 41 percent. The connection between glyphosate, a key component of Roundup, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma has long been the subject of fierce scientific debate, reports The Guardian (U.K.). The World Health Organization concluded in 2015 that the herbicide was “probably carcinogenic to humans”—a finding rejected in 2017 by the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency. For this new research, scientists at the University of Washington analyzed all available published studies on the issue. Focusing in particular on people with the highest levels of exposure, such as farmworkers and groundskeepers, researchers found a “compelling link” between the chemical and disease. “All of the meta-analyses conducted to date, including our own, consistently report the same key finding,” the authors conclude. Monsanto, which makes Roundup, and the agro-chemical company’s German owner, Bayer AG, are already facing 9,000 lawsuits from people who claim the glyphosate damaged their health.
3-1-19 ‘Zombie deer disease’ could infect humans
An infectious fatal disease known as zombie deer disease is rapidly spreading across deer populations in the U.S. and could infect humans, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned. Chronic wasting disease (CWD) has now been found in deer, elk, and moose across 24 states, primarily in the Midwest, and in two Canadian provinces. Like “mad cow disease,” the condition is caused by abnormal proteins called prions, and attacks the brain, spinal cord, and bodies of infected animals. Symptoms include stumbling, listlessness, drooling, and severe weight loss. There is no known treatment. CWD hasn’t been detected in humans, and there is no proof that people can be infected. But with as many as 15,000 infected animals eaten each year, scientists are growing increasingly concerned that the disease will cross species, the way “mad cow” spread from cattle to humans in the 1990s in the U.K. and elsewhere. “It is probable that human cases of chronic wasting disease associated with consumption of contaminated meat will be documented in the years ahead,” Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, tells USA Today. “It’s possible the number of human cases will be substantial.” The CDC advises hunters in affected areas not to shoot or handle deer that look sick or act strangely, and to get any venison tested before eating it.
3-1-19 Eating a lot of fiber could improve some cancer treatments
The same can’t be said for taking probiotics, researchers suggest. What you eat can affect how well immune therapies work against cancer. High-fiber diets may change gut microbes and make these therapies more effective, but taking probiotics could do the opposite. Researchers looked at people with melanoma skin cancer who were getting a kind of immune therapy called PD-1 blockade or checkpoint inhibition (SN: 10/27/18, p. 16). Those who ate a high-fiber diet were five times as likely to have the therapy halt the growth of or shrink tumors as those on diets low in fiber, researchers reported February 27 in a news conference held by the American Association for Cancer Research. High-fiber diets seem to foster a more diverse collection of gut microbes, which is associated with better outcomes from PD-1 blockade therapy, said Christine Spencer, a research scientist at the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy in San Francisco. But probiotic supplements — pills or food supplements that are supposed to contain helpful bacteria — actually reduced the diversity of microbes in cancer patients’ guts, the researchers found. Only about 20 to 30 percent of cancer patients see their tumors stop growing or shrink with PD-1 blockade immunotherapy. Spencer and colleagues had previously determined that bacteria in the Ruminococcaceae family seem to improve responses to the treatment, but the researchers didn’t know why some people have more of those helpful bacteria than others. Diet is one way to change a person’s microbiome, the collection of bacteria, fungi and other microbes that live on and in the body (SN: 5/30/15, p. 18). So Spencer and colleagues at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston surveyed 113 people with melanoma about their diets, including use of probiotics, and collected fecal samples from each participant.
3-1-19 Kids’ growing screen time
Children under 2 are spending twice as much time in front of screens as they did two decades ago. Researchers looked back at parent diary data collected between 1997 and 2014 for a University of Michigan study. They found that kids under 2 spent an average of 1.32 hours in front of a screen back in 1997, and 3.05 hours in 2014. To their surprise, they found that smartphone and tablet use wasn’t the primary driver of that increase—it was television, which accounted for more than two and a half hours of screen time in 2014, up from just half an hour in 1997. Daily screen time for kids between ages 3 and 5 didn’t rise significantly over the 17-year study period, averaging around two and a half hours. But again, TV accounted for most of that time, going from a little over an hour in 1997 to more than two hours in 2014. Excessive screen time for toddlers has been linked with developmental issues at a later age. Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, chief of digital innovation at Seattle Children’s Hospital, told CNN.com that it’s tempting for overwhelmed parents to park kids in front of the TV, because it’s “so effective at holding our child’s attention.”
3-1-19 Human genome editing is here – now we have to decide who is in charge
The announcement of a WHO committee to discuss the scientific, ethical and legal issues surrounding human genome editing is to be welcomed, says Andy Greenfield The World Health Organization (WHO) will convene a meeting this month to develop global standards of governance for human genome editing. This is a welcome move. Although the committee has no powers to enforce compliance – it is still a matter for individual nations to decide on regulations, with China reportedly updating its rules earlier this week – the WHO committee’s recommendations will be influential and far-reaching in their ambition. But I hope committee members will bear a few points in mind in their discussions. The first is safety. It is likely that the WHO meeting will focus on inheritable edits to human embryos, known as germline genome editing (GGE). The issue of GGE was thorny enough even before reports of the birth of twins with edited genomes in China – an intervention widely condemned as clinically unjustified and reckless. The criticism partly stemmed from numerous mice studies suggesting that we cannot rely on genome-editing tools like CRISPR-Cas9 to make precise and predictable changes to DNA in every embryo. The conclusion is that genome editing cannot yet safely be performed on fertilised eggs for use in assisted human reproduction. But it might be safe at some point. The WHO can define standards for the evaluation of safety and efficacy in preclinical research on GGE. The importance of agreeing such standards relates to another factor: human embryo research, including that involving genome editing, is central to improving success rates in IVF clinics and furthering our ambitions in regenerative medicine more generally. We must make the case for such research and resist any temptation to prohibit it through fear of what we may learn. That would simply be an unwarranted, knee-jerk response to the reports from China.
3-1-19 Broken bones in mice healed faster by heat-releasing implant
Broken bones also appreciate some warmth. A biodegradable bone implant can stimulate bone regrowth using heat, doubling the amount of bone tissue regrowth in mice. Our bones naturally rebuild themselves after small fractures. But with severe traumas, they can’t always fully grow back on their own. Bone transplants can be used to treat such injuries, but spare bone tissue isn’t always available. So, Huaiyu Wang at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shenzhen and his colleagues developed an alternative approach using a heat-generating implant. When cells, including those in bones, encounter enough heat they produce proteins that encourage growth and repair. However, using this to stimulate bone growth is normally difficult without damaging nearby skin and muscles. To get around this, the team created an implant that produces heat when exposed to near-infrared light. This light can travel through skin and muscle without causing harm. The team’s implant can be moulded into any shape to replace part of a bone that is damaged. As the bone starts to grow, the implant degrades, providing more space for the growth. The implant was tested on five mice with damaged tibia bones in their lower legs. The team shone near-infrared light onto the implant spot for 60 seconds once a week for five weeks. Ten weeks after implantation, the five mice that received the treatment had twice as much new bone tissue as the five that didn’t. The team plans to use 3D printing to make the implants. “Because the damaged part of the bone will have different shapes and structures, 3D printing can create products that are more compatible,” says Wang.
3-1-19 Sleeping in on the weekend can’t make up for lost sleep
Lack of Zs increased weight, late-night munchies and insensitivity to insulin. If the weekend is your time to catch up on sleep, you may want to rethink your strategy. In young adults, using the weekend to make up for lost sleep during the workweek can lead to increased late-night munchies, weight gain and a lowered responsiveness to insulin, researchers report February 28 in Current Biology. “The take-home message is basically that you can’t make up for abusing your sleeping clock by sleeping a few more hours on the weekend,” says Paul Shaw, a neuroscientist at Washington University in St. Louis who was not involved in the study. “It’s not as simple as saying, ‘Oh, if I sleep in on the weekends, I’ll be better.’” Since the 1990s, scientists have understood that missing sleep can affect a person’s metabolic health, causing behavioral and physiological changes that can lead to obesity and type 2 diabetes. Yet in 2014, roughly 35 percent of American adults reported sleeping fewer than the recommended seven hours per night, according to the latest data available from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Weekends may seem like an ideal time to catch up on sleep, but it was unclear whether that could actually work. So Christopher Depner, a sleep physiologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, and his colleagues put three groups of young adults in their mid-20s through different sleep regimens for roughly two weeks. One group slept about eight hours every night; another got roughly five hours a night; the third got around five hours on weeknights and slept whenever and as much as they wanted over a weekend.